Like the Canadian lynx that has relocated and elusively reclaimed a big part of its historic territory in Colorado, another ghost of the past, the wolverine, might be heading for the mountains of Gunnison County.
County wildlife biologist Jim Cochran told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, July 27 that a series of events has the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) working to develop plans for reintroducing Gulo gulo (the wolverine’s Latin name means “glutton”) to the Colorado high country.
“At the Wildlife Commission meeting in July, the division made specific reference to the involvement of counties in developing a reintroduction plan,” Cochran said. That might mean a big part to play for Gunnison County.
Cochran thinks if there is an “epicenter” of model wolverine habitat in Colorado, Gunnison County might be it. The Continental Divide takes a meandering course through the county, he said, “so we probably have more alpine area than many if not any other counties in the state.”
The last confirmed sighting of a wolverine in Colorado was more than 90 years ago. In 2009 researchers from the Greater Yellowstone Wolverine program say they tracked a male wolverine 500 miles from home to the north-central part of Colorado.
Today, the animals are most abundant in Canada and Alaska, where there is abundant cover and forage and few people.
In the summer months, wolverines like it high in the mountains, hunting just about anything from rodents and marmots to deer struggling in the snow. As the largest member of the weasel family at about 30 pounds, wolverines are known for being vicious, inspiring stories that are sometimes larger than life.
But there are plenty of stories to be found online of hunters—and even mountain lions, bears and wolves—being chased off kills by hungry wolverines. So their reputations as vicious hunters might not be entirely undeserved, and Cochran said that might upset some of the area’s ranchers.
“They’re a relatively large predator. The livestock industry might be concerned, especially sheep,” he said. “The implications of the listing would be what goes on in Gunnison County in the critical habitat, alpine and transition sub-alpine would effect what kind of activities can go on in those areas. And it will impact federal decisions.” “The listing” refers to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision about whether or not to give the wolverine special protection under the Endangered Species Act. In 2008 the FWS determined that there wasn’t a need to list the wolverine as endangered, but that was challenged in court and now the FWS is reconsidering its decision.
And because one wolverine made its way into Colorado recently, the division director Thomas Remington said the state will be able to start the reintroduction program without federal approval on that technicality. If the species had been removed from federal lands for a longer period of time, FWS approval might have been necessary.
“The undercurrent of the discussion is that, like with the lynx, if reintroduction is successful it might preclude the federal listing of the species,” Cochran said.
And even if the wolverine is listed as endangered, the reintroduced “experimental” population would likely lessen the Act’s regulatory authority over the local wolverine populations.
“We should be ready to participate,” Cochran said. “The legal definition of the habitat would include a large portion of the county and it will affect uses.”
Cochran said the commissioners should expect to see some action from the DOW soon, since the FWS has agreed to review the reintroduction plan by December 1.