DENVER — Colorado plans to reintroduce the gray wolf this year. Could wolverines be next?
Wolverines are not wolves. Instead, they are the largest species of weasel.
The animal was all but wiped out in the early 1900s from poisoning by ranchers who were trying to kill bears, mountain lions and wolves. Today there are only about 300 left in the lower 48 states.
The North American wolverine received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in November.
Plans to reintroduce the species in Colorado had been in the works for years but were put on hold while the state waited for the ruling on protected status. In a statement, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said, "We're evaluating what the decision means for us. It's been an agency goal for a few years to reintroduce wolverines."
The Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered species protection nonprofit, is advocating for wolverine reintroduction in Colorado.
According to the nonprofit, the chief threat to the wolverine is climate change. The animal needs a lot of snow and high altitude, but the snowpack in the West is under threat.
"Colorado is uniquely situated as one of the states that's going to have the best snowpack moving forward with climate projections," said Allison Henderson, the center's Southern Rockies director. "If we can move forward with getting this species on the ground in areas in particular where we know they have habitat that will allow them to rear their young, that's going to set us up well for success with this species."
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Colorado Governor Jared Polis is all in on reintroduction.
"The governor continues to join so many Coloradans who share his enthusiasm for reintroducing the native wolverine, last spotted in 2012 in our state, to better restore ecological balance in wild Colorado areas," a spokesperson for Polis said in a statement.
But not everyone is on board. The Wolverine Foundation, a nonprofit organization comprised of wildlife scientists with a common interest in the wolverine, is saying "not so fast."
The foundation argues that reintroduction is expensive and traumatic to the individual animals relocated. It also claims reintroduction is unnecessary because the wolverine population is spreading by itself, as proven by a single wolverine that was spotted in Colorado a decade ago.
"My thought is, why not watch this? We want to see expansion happen. We want to bring the wolverine to Colorado because we (humans) want it. It's probably going to get here on its own," said Jeff Copeland from The Wolverine Foundation.
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Copeland believes wolverines will naturally find their way back to Colorado within a decade. But Henderson argues that human development, such as highways and bridges, are obstacles to such natural expansion.
"I think part of the challenge is we as humans have fragmented the landscape in a way that makes it hard for wolverines in the lower 48 to move into Colorado," said Henderson.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is in the process of developing a wolverine recovery plan.