Colorado film fans who have seen Red Dawn might recall the thrilling and defiant cry: “Wolverines!” They may also recall that the story’s setting — in the 1984 release of the film — was their own state.
Wolverines — the actual animals — could soon reclaim their place in Colorado, too, making this comeback the next predator restoration initiative. Overall, the only real concerns are whether Colorado’s increasingly tenuous alpine habitats will have the space to accommodate wolverines, and whether we have the sustained ambition to advocate for them.
Earlier this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife revisited an old proposal to reintroduce wolverines to parts of the state that include higher-elevation alpine habitat such as that found in the Sawatch and San Juan Mountains.
The interest in bringing back wolverines arises from a growing recognition of the need for carnivores within ecosystems. The wolverine’s presence in Colorado not only would benefit several ecosystems in need, but the species itself.
Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family and classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a species of ‘least concern’ across the Northern Hemisphere. Warming alpine habitats, however, limit den space for the animals, forcing them to travel well out of their way in search of a home that’s likely not there. If the enduring carnivores don’t succumb to starvation or human predation, then running out of real estate is their fate.
While it’s true that Colorado already is tasked with Gray wolf recovery, making similar efforts on behalf of the wolverine should not be undervalued or seen as conflicting. A wolverine program may even gain quicker traction, have lower costs, and in a way, offset tension and promote further acceptance of wolf reintroduction.
Of course, the wolf recovery is challenging, but in the words of wolf expert John Vucetich, the effort is “righting the wrongs” of past extirpations. Species recovery efforts aren’t easy, but as long as the wolf opportunity is in front of us, why not use our capabilities to act on both efforts? Talk about righting the wrongs of the past. Colorado can be a shining example of this as we face accelerated climate changes that hinder not only the survival of predators, but of our own.
Coincidentally, wolverine reintroduction predates that of the wolf; a strategic plan was created in 2010 but was halted in 2014. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined a proposal to list federal protections for the wolverine, given its wide distribution across the continent, and thus prevented Colorado from gaining a sample population. The state Park and Wildlife initial predator reintroduction was the Canada lynx in the 1990s, and has been a success.
As an apex predator and scavenger, wolverines can contribute to healthy prey populations and limit diseases, reinforcing ecosystem resilience. Much of Colorado’s famed high-altitude spaces will benefit if this plan is revived.
Because Colorado is the state with the highest average altitude, it could provide needed wolverine sanctuary. The last confirmed sighting of a wolverine in Colorado, in 2009, was in Rocky Mountain National Park, a wanderer likely from Yellowstone.
Although powerful and bold, wolverines are elusive and keen to avoid humans. Wolverine attacks on livestock are far less common than those of any other carnivore — including bears and mountain lions. Conflicts with humans are even less frequent. Why not lend a hand to this unique animal that represents the wild so well?
Colorado has acquired more people since wolverines last roamed here and preserving substantial space will be vital. Predator animals can, however, coexist with humans even on a busy landscape. How many wolverines would be imported, and where they would come from, is yet to be determined, but tracking collars likely would be used to monitor the first population set.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife can get this going by educating and engaging all stakeholders, just as it has with wolves. And to be sure, input from all Coloradans can make it happen.
It’s exciting to see Parks and Wildlife’s consideration of wolverine restoration, particularly when stakes are high. Apex predators are vulnerable in a changing world, making their survival ever-more important for sustaining diverse lands.
Colorado can really showcase its value of wildlife by championing predator coexistence with people through wolverine reintroduction. Time is of the essence, and while the Centennial state’s landscape is dominated by humans, it could still provide some of the last habitat to sustain some of America’s most iconic species. With a passion for the nation’s wild character, and in defiance of extinction, I exclaim: “Wooolveeerrriiiines!”
Logan Haynes, of Fort Collins, is a graduate student in the Conservation Leadership program at Colorado State University.
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