Where the Wild Things Were

Despite the sprawl, Colorado could be welcoming back its charismatic megafauna. Wolves and wolverines have been crossing the border and grizzly bears may not be far behind. But can the Centennial State save the big swaths of land these predators need to make a true comeback?

On the Prowl: Male wolverines that have crossed the Colorado border can only thrive if females follow.
On the Prowl: Male wolverines that have crossed the Colorado border can only thrive if females follow.

On Friday, May 22, 2009, a male wolverine wearing a radio collar slipped across the Colorado border from Wyoming and steadily made his way to Rocky Mountain National Park. Having traveled roughly 500 miles from his home in Wyoming’s Teton Range, the rare weasel-like creature was retracing steps that hadn’t been taken by his species in 90 years. Chances are, say biologists, the wolverine was expanding his territory and setting out in pursuit of a future mate and home.

Four months later, wolverine M56 was still in Colorado, somewhere around the Indian Peaks Wilderness. That he managed to navigate this far south and cross over I-80 unharmed is remarkable, says Bob Inman, head of the Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Project.

“In the last two years, we’ve had the first documented wolverines (both males) in California and Colorado in 100 years,” says Inman. “It almost seems like the population is maybe even starting to rebound.”

Possibly. A true rebound would require females, without which there won’t be future wolverines. Still, the wolverine’s return is a cause for celebration; that an animal once extirpated from a formerly wild state could make an independent return triggers the ecological imagination. M56’s journey indicates there are enough wild tracts (biologists call them “migration corridors”) to facilitate such a trip. If that’s true, then others will likely follow. Should that happen, Colorado could house a new wolverine population, which would recreate a level of wildness that some had written off as lost.

If a Centennial recovery may be possible for wolverines, what about other extirpated wild species? If M56 made it here by hop-scotching from the Tetons to the Snake River Range to the Medicine Bows, over I-80, to the Never Summer Range and, eventually, to the Indian Peaks, certainly other wild, furry mammals (staidly known by biologists as “charismatic megafauna”) could also migrate from the biologically-rich Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) south to Colorado. And if they do, is there enough room for them here to thrive?

The short answer—when talking about the predators that often adorn the posters of conservation groups—is yes. Gray wolves reintroduced to Wyoming and Idaho in 1995 have repeatedly proven their adaptability as they continue to den outside of Yellowstone National Park and live near human developments. Grizzly bears require high alpine ecosystems filled with prey like deer and elk—of which Colorado has much. Wild cats can also thrive here, as evidenced by the booming mountain lion population and a state-operated lynx reintroduction program that’s had progressive success.

Consider this, a lynx reintroduction program begun in 1999 is yielding small but promising results. In the past decade, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has reintroduced 218 lynx, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and have confirmed a total of 126 kittens born, initial success toward reaching the goal of a recovered lynx population. Less rare species, like moose, bighorn sheep, and mule dear are also thriving, with their populations rebounding from historic lows.

“Colorado is always going to be more fragmented than the Northern Rockies, that’s a given,” says Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) lead biologist Rick Kahn. “We’ll never look the same as Montana or Idaho. But the lynx program proves you can put these animals in a much less wild situation and they are adaptable.”

Return of the Natives?
Charismatic megafauna may already be here—in fact, two official wolf sightings (and more unofficial ones) have occurred in Colorado since 2007. M56’s successful journey demonstrates that a viable corridor exists, and if the populations get squeezed up north, individuals may head south. Estimates for the Northern Rockies wolf population in 2008 counted roughly 1,650 wolves in 217 packs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. And in 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the roughly 600 Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list, following a recovery program that cost more than $20 million, so that population could also start to spread out.

Even though the state could theoretically sustain populations of these big predators, there are no plans to reintroduce them, says Kahn. Reintroduction and recovery programs are costly and controversial; widespread protests by ranchers, outfitters, and even the states of Idaho and Wyoming clipped the heels of the 1995 grey wolf recovery program. Put those wild animals in Colorado where there are more roads, ranches, mines, ski areas and housing developments in the vicinity where wolves and bears are likely to congregate, and you have a large public relations problem on your hand.

“Wolf management is very expensive,” says Susan Linner, Field Supervisor of the Colorado Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Someone has to absorb that cost for the Colorado Division of Wildlife if wolves were here. Not only would that alienate their major stockholders [hunters and outfitters], it is very time intensive to manage these wolves.”

Besides, today’s conservation priorities aren’t the predatory mammals, says Linner. The species most at risk in Colorado are those on the plains—mammals and birds, alike—whose homes have given way to the plow, subdivisions, changed fire regimes and more. The black footed ferret prebles meadow jumping mouse, lesser prairie chicken, and greater sage grouse are a few of the species whose decimated habitats have led to worrying population declines and spurred extensive conservation efforts and partnerships between state and federal agencies, non profits, and individuals.

Save the Prairie
According to Matt Kale, USFWS spokesman, Colorado’s conservation is at a “watershed moment.” Specifically, efforts to protect large swatches of land from development—through conservation easements, watershed restoration, species protection and more—are attempting to stitch together more complete landscapes reminiscent of Colorado 100 years ago.

Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on a plan to develop a broader vision for species conservation that attempts to compensate for climate change-influenced alterations to the landscape. Specifically, the agency is in the process of forming “Landscape Conservation Cooperatives,” partnerships with a multitude of other agencies and organizations interested in conservation that will go into effect in 2010.

“We can’t conserve a single species on a single piece of ground,” says Kale. “When we’re talking about large landscapes, we’re talking about connectivity and ensuring linkages remain intact.”

In other words, the agency hopes to triage conservation efforts to encompass larger areas and cover a variety of species with different recovery needs. Colorado does claim two federally managed national grasslands that cover 633,000 acres, but the habitat needs to be larger and better linked. The Nature Conservancy actively seeks out partnerships with state and federal agencies, and Chris Pague, the Nature Conservancy’s senior conservation ecologist for Colorado, agrees that the state’s conservation needs are highest on the plains.

“We have changed a lot with fire and grazing regimes,” says Pague. “The grasslands of the world are the most altered and the least protected of the big system ecosystem habitat type.”

According to Pague, 42 percent of the country’s great plains has been altered by urbanization and agriculture. With this comes a social disconnect from the grasslands, our traditional breadbasket, which can have severe results.

“We are connected to grasslands,” he says. “The soils are really important for us and the meat raising part of the world depends on grasslands. In Colorado, this is where our species of concerns are.”

Through a program called “Measures of Success,” The Nature Conservancy is attempting to quantify the threats to the landscape, measure the conservation efforts and evaluate their efficacy.

“There are a lot of people doing good conservation out there, but the key is getting to the finish line,” says Pague. “Are we doing what we need to and what we think we are? Our board wanted to know if we were ‘winning,’ if the methods we were using at the time were working.”

The initial conclusion was that the work wasn’t protecting enough habitat at a fast enough rate. In Colorado, the Nature Conservancy identified myriad opportunities that fall into the following categories: local (i.e. preventing extinction of a specific species at a specific location), landscape (where opportunities exist to reintroduce the natural fire regime to make timber stands and other ecosystems more resilient and resistant to climate change) and private land.

“Landowners have learned so much about conservation and there’s a wide move to get to sustainable agriculture activities,” says Pague. “We are getting closer and closer to where our goals match up, and we have very successful partnerships with the cattleman’s association and others.”

But not everyone supports restoring the plains to benefit species such as the Prebles’ meadow jumping mouse or to return animals listed under the federal Endangered Species Act to their native lands. The conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based non-profit law firm dedicated to “individual liberty,” has supported lawsuits to remove the mouse from the endangered species list and to block Colorado’s lynx reintroduction program. In addition, the organization, which employed former U.S. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton from 1979 to 1983, supports lawsuits throughout the West to continue to allow natural resource extraction, like mining and forestry, and agriculture to continue, even when potential conflicts with threatened and endangered species arise.

Stag Party?
So what’s the future hold for M56? To Inman, the wolverine biologist from the GYWP, there’s still room for conservation efforts to encourage disbursement of wolverines.

“With modern-day roads, we’re not sure if females are willing and able to travel those distances that males do,” he says “The most significant conservation improvement we could make would be helping them get back to this public land.”

By help, he means bring the ladies. Wolverines prefer high alpine habitats, right around tree line. To return to their historic high mountain habitat (concentrated today in big chunks of public land in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and California), scientists may need to play matchmaker, relocating females and making it easier for the wandering males to find a mate. They also need to continue to call for programs that protect the migration corridors. This can entail conserving open space, securing easements on private property, and trying to make it easier for critters to cross highways.

What’s good for a wandering wolverine would also be good for the myriad other species that once lived in the Centennial State and no longer do, even when they exist in pockets outside of Colorado. Just as officials in Colorado are looking to piece together large swaths of grasslands, other conservation groups, including the Patagonia, Inc.-supported “Freedom to Roam,” are looking to connect separated ecosystems (such as Yellowstone and the Canadian Rockies) with protected travel corridors.

A century ago, Colorado’s population was 799,024, according to the 1913 Encyclopedia Britannica. Today about 5.1 million people live here. “Intact ecosystem” doesn’t spring to mind when driving through the subdivisions that separate Boulder and Denver or Denver from Colorado Springs. Yet extensive efforts are underway to restore much of the land and the native species. The will is here, say the many partners. Perhaps the wild things will be too.

Rachel Walker’s logged lots of hours on public land for both work and play. A freelance writer based in Boulder, she’s reported on grizzly bears in Yellowstone, salmon in the Northwest and Super Bowl advertisements.

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