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February 5, 2013
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The return of the wolverine to Colorado?

ASPEN - Wolverines could once again roam the Colorado high country, including the mountain habitat surrounding Aspen, but don't look for the elusive animals just yet.

Last week's proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list wolverines as a threatened species and designate Colorado as an experimental population area is but the first step in a potential reintroduction effort, but it's one that has excited conservation groups across the state, including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

The organization is eager to help with the public education that would accompany reintroduction of wolverines to the Colorado backcountry, according to Will Roush, conservation advocate for Wilderness Workshop.

The federal proposal would designate the entire southern Rockies, including southern Wyoming, Colorado and northern New Mexico, as an experimental reintroduction area, while listing the animal as threatened under the Endangered Species Act would give it protection without affecting existing land uses - a key consideration that may ease the path to its reintroduction, according to conservationists.

"By limiting the protections afforded by the act for wolverines and their habitat, the experimental nonessential designation makes broad support for a reintroduction of wolverines in the Southern Rockies region much more likely," several conservation groups said in a joint statement.

The federal process that will follow the Fish and Wildlife announcement on Friday will take a year, according to Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. If the listing is made official, and the experimental population area is established, state wildlife officials will renew conversations about reintroducing the animals to Colorado, he said.

Such a move would require approval of the Colorado Wildlife Commission and the state Legislature after conversations with "stakeholders" who may have concerns about the reintroduction of the wolverine to the landscape, Odell said.

The wolverine's preferred habitat, however, may limit the sorts of conflicts that could lead to objections, Roush reasoned. The animal inhabits the rock, ice and snow of the high country - a harsh environment where daily low temperatures can fall below freezing most of the year, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"There's certainly habitat in the Aspen area - in the west Elks and toward Gunnison," Odell said. In all, there are about 8 million acres of suitable habitat in Colorado - most of it on federal land and a lot of it in designated wilderness areas, he said.

The animals are scavangers that also eat small mammals and occasionally attack large game when it is vulnerable - bogged down in deep snow, for example, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They birth their young in dens dug deep into the snow in mid-February that need the snowpack to remain intact into mid-spring when the kits are weaned, Roush said.

"The hope is that places like Colorado that have much higher elevations have snow that will last," he said.

The impact of climate change on wolverine habitat is a factor that led to the animals' consideration for protection.

"One of the most important things that we can do to ensure the survival of wolverines in the West in the face of climate change is to get them back on the ground in Colorado," said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, a Denver-based conservation organization, in a statement. "Ideally, we'd like to see wolverines reintroduced with the full protections of the Endangered Species Act. However, we are hopeful that the experimental designation is a compromise that will make it possible for everyone to support reintroduction of wolverines to Colorado."

Although wolverines look somewhat like bear cubs, they are a rare, wide-ranging and fierce member of the weasel family. Wildlife officials believe the animals disappeared from the state in the early 1900s, when they are thought to have been eliminated by poisoning and trapping. The last confirmed presence of wolverines in Colorado was in 1919, but in spring 2009, researchers tracked a lone male from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming as it traveled south about 500 miles to north-central Colorado, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The state agency is working with researchers to monitor the animal's movements.

"They're pretty cool creatures and a symbol of the wild country in a lot of ways," said Roush, who encountered a wolverine in the wild just once, on a backcountry ski trail in Canada.

"It looked at me and turned away pretty quick," he said. "They're pretty solitary."

In that respect, they're not unlike lynx, which were the subject of a successful reintroduction effort in Colorado that began in southwest Colorado in 1999. By 2005, more than 200 animals had been released, a number of litters of kittens had been born, and the lynx population had expanded throughout the state's high country, including the Independence Pass area southeast of Aspen.

In the 1990s, Colorado wildlife officials explored opportunities to reintroduce both lynx and wolverines to the state. The lynx program moved forward; now focus has shifted to the wolverine.

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 5, 2013 07:22AM Published Feb 5, 2013 01:50AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.