Group wants wolverines put on endangered list

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— The wolverine is next on a long list of animals that conservation groups are pushing for federal protection as endangered species.

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Predator Conservation Alliance and four other conservation groups have filed a petition for the wolverine to be federally listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days from the July 11 filing to decide if the animal warrants a year of research and a year of public comment before a decision can be reached.

Jill Parker, chief of endangered species for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency receives hundreds of petitions a year and many are in line ahead of the wolverine petition.

"We've quite a backlog of petitions right now," she said.

If the "extent of practicality" is beyond 90 days, the agency can put the petition off for a longer period, Parker said.

A petition was filed in 1994 asking federal protection for the wolverine but, at the time, the agency did not have enough information to justify a one-year study, she added.

There are an estimated 800 to 1,000 wolverines in the lower 48 states, with the majority living in Idaho and northwest Montana.

A small population of wolverines is thought to live in Colorado, and a June sighting of a wolverine in the Flat Tops wilderness area, which is partially in south Routt County, supports that theory.

Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, said the difficult issue with the wolverine is that it has an extended range of habitat.

"There's no question about the loss of range," he said.

Limiting recreational use and resource extraction in remaining open spaces would be necessary to protect the animal, he said.

The spread of highways and urban areas has also contributed to the fragmenting of the wolverines' habitat and reduced their numbers.

The wolverine roams high alpine environments used by snowmobilers and skiers.

"Even a cross-country skier coming too close will force a wolverine to vacate its den," Carlton said.

Wolverines, members of the weasel family, are highly aggressive carnivores. They are a little larger than a badger and have sharp teeth.

The animal was listed as an endangered species in 1973 by the state of Colorado, but that listing focuses more on harassment or taking the animal into possession.

"It's not anywhere close to the level of protection as the federal level has," Colorado Division of Wildlife area manager Susan Werner said.

The wolverine is one of many animals that the Biodiversity Legal Foundation is trying to protect.

The Colorado cutthroat, Gunnison sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and the boreal toad are some of the animals that many conservation groups want to protect in Colorado, Carlton said.

"If you listed all those cases there would be some serious ramifications," he said.

Population growth and all types of outdoor recreation would have to be limited to cater to the animals.

From a wildlife manager's perspective, Werner said human influence on open spaces has a serious impact on wildlife.

"My professional opinion is that we can never return habitats back to the pre-white settlement time," she said.

As forest planning goes, conservation groups would like to see management be determined by scientific studies focused on the protection of ecosystems.

"We don't want to lock up the forest; we want to preserve it for the future," Carlton said.

But the process of deciding on protective measures for animals is technical and a lot goes into it, Werner said.

She said there are two basic perspectives on the subject: one, that humans should utilize the land for what it's worth to them; the other, that nature should be allowed to flourish without human influence.

"There's a huge amount of philosophy about that and people who feel very strongly on both sides of the fence," Werner said.

Filing for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act guarantees that science will be the determining factor in any decision.

All decisions are made from scientific studies of the animal's habitat and population, leaving out land-use issues.

If at the end of the 90-day period, the petition is deemed not worthy of scientific study, Carlton said he would have no qualms about a filing a lawsuit to prove that science justifies federal protection.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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