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Wolverine reintroduction legislation is ‘completely opposite’ wolf plan

‘They do not eat cattle. They do not eat sheep. They do not eat people,’ state Rep. Barbara McLachlan says

A new predator could be coming to Colorado’s high country, but supporters are promising this reintroduction will be different.

Colorado lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved the return of wolverines to Colorado’s alpine landscape, with a plan “that is completely opposite from the wolf reintroduction process,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon who co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle.

Roberts said the pair’s Senate Bill 171 marks “a responsible way to do wildlife reintroduction.” The bill is heading to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk for final approval. If signed, the effort will mark the first-ever attempt to restore wolverines to a native range.

Roberts and Will are among the most outspoken critics of the state’s wolf reintroduction effort and spent two years crafting the wolverine bill with input from Western Slope residents, the resort industry and wildlife biologists.

The wolverine legislation allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate an experimental population in Colorado, which gives Colorado Parks and Wildlife the ability to manage reintroduction. That federal approval of a state-managed population of federally protected animals is allowed under section 10(j) in the Endangered Species Act. That 10(j) designation will require the federal government to review the reintroduction plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, which can take a year or longer.

SB 171 also establishes a funding tool so ranchers who lose livestock to wolverines can be compensated. There is no deadline for when CPW should return wolverines to the state.

The 10(j), the lack of a deadline and a compensation program were crafted to avoid the pitfalls of wolf reintroduction, “where they just went to the ballot first and then filled in all the safeguards afterward,” Roberts said.

“I think the bipartisan support and sponsorship of this legislation reflects the long-term process this has gone through rather than rushing it though like wolves,” he said.

There are somewhere between 300 and 400 wolverines in the lower forty-eight states of North America. The largest member of the weasel family is native to Colorado, but the last wolverine in Colorado was killed in 1919. CPW conducted a dozen surveys in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s searching for wolverines across the Western Slope and found none. Wolverines are extremely solitary and the 15-to-40-pound animals roam territories that are eight times larger than needed for lynx.

The FWS in 2020 declined to list the wolverine as threatened but a federal court overturned that decision. In November last year, the federal agency designated the carnivore as threatened, citing updated threats based on climate impacts to high-altitude snow coverage, fractured habitat and trapping activity.

Colorado wildlife officials first began planning wolverine reintroduction in the late 1990s but restoration plans were delayed as the state focused on restoring Canadian lynx. Wolverine reintroduction was delayed again in 2010 as federal officials weighed the protection status for wolverines.

CPW has already begun reigniting wolverine restoration work that began in 2010 as the state concluded reintroduction of Canadian lynx. The Colorado wildlife biologists presented an early plan to CPW commissioners earlier this month at a meeting in Montrose. That theoretical plan calls for releasing up to 45 wolverines over three years – 30 females and 15 males – in three zones: north of Interstate 70, a central zone between I-70 and U.S. 50 and a southern zone in the San Juans.

A view of the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun file)

That plan could yield a sustainable population of 100 wolverines in the next three or four decades, according to survival rate information from Sweden, where biologists have studied wolverines for 30 years.

“No agency has attempted this so we are on the cutting edge, I think,” wildlife researcher scientist Jake Ivan told the commissioner at the Montrose meeting. “We have done what we can to prepare ourselves for this but everything really is unknown to a degree at this point. I think our success will likely require our ability to adapt and roll with the punches.”

The legislation sets aside $103,000 to help cover the costs of increased staffing and workload connected to the reintroduction. Wolverine attacks on livestock are rare, but Utah wildlife officials in March 2022 captured and collared a 4-year-old male after it attacked and killed a rancher’s sheep.

The last wolverine confirmed in Colorado was in 2009, when a collared male traveled south from the Teton Range in Wyoming and hung out around Rocky Mountain National Park for several years. The wolverine eventually headed up to North Dakota, where it was shot in 2016 by a rancher who said it was threatening his cows.

Is another reintroduction being proposed too soon?

Colorado House co-sponsors Tisha Mauro, a Democrat from Pueblo and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat from Durango, made sure to tell fellow lawmakers that “these are weasels, not wolves.”

McLachlan, during discussion on the Colorado House floor on May 2, said she spoke with cattlemen who were wary of the legislation “because wolverines sound too much like wolves.”


“Wolverines are much smaller. They are scavengers,” she said. “They do not eat cattle. They do not eat sheep. They do not eat people.”

House Assistant Minority Leader Ty Winter, a Republican from Trinidad, voted against the legislation but said on the House floor May 2 that the lawmakers sponsoring the bill “are doing it right” and doing “everything that should have been done with wolf reintroduction.”

Even though wolves were reintroduced in December in northern Colorado, far from Winter’s southern Colorado district, he said his constituents feel wolves arrived “with no real plan … and they’ve got heartburn from this still.”

Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican from Akron, also opposed the legislation, saying “the agriculture community has not recovered from the introduction of the last predator species.”

“I think it’s better if we are going to do this to take time and not just try to rush the introduction of these animals that are not very compatible with so much of what is Colorado,” Holtorf said on the House floor May 2. “I fear the wolverine will not like it here.”

Rep. Richard Holtorf speaks April 17 at the Colorado Capitol. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The lack of a deadline for CPW to return wolverines to Colorado and the requirement for FWS to permit an experimental population addressed concerns for both ranchers and the resort industry. Ski areas expressed some concern that the endangered status of wolverines would complicate operations without that 10(j) rule exemption from the federal government. It’s expected that mining, agriculture, logging and ski industry representatives will be involved in the reintroduction effort and the 10(j) designation review.

“The 10(j) rule is the way to really address those concerns and make sure ski area operations can continue without major regulatory burdens,” said Megan Mueller, a conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “I think Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked hard to include stakeholders in the wolf reintroduction and they are doing the best they can, but with legislation, stakeholders have real guarantees that their concerns will be addressed.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.