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Colorado lawmakers push bipartisan effort to reintroduce wolverines into the wild

Now there's a legislative push as Colorado considers introducing wolverines back into the wild
Now there's a legislative push as Colorado considers introducing wolverines back into the wild 02:32

Colorado lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are trying to reintroduce wolverines to a state they once inhabited now that they've been categorized as a threatened species.

CBS News Colorado has already told our viewers about the push to get wolverines (not wolves) back in Colorado; a plan that spans decades at this point.

That plan is springing into motion, now that the animals have officially been federally listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. There was an attempt to do this back in 2013, but it didn't pass. The bi-partisan legislative push will be spearheaded by State Sens. Perry Will and Dylan Roberts -- a Republican and Democrat, respectively -- and Democratic State Reps. Barbara McLachlan and Tisha Mauro, and is expected to be officially introduced this week.

This means there's an opportunity to bring back an animal that Coloradans of the past pushed to near extinction, either through poisoning or trapping, according to Stefan Ekernas, director of Colorado field conservation for the Denver Zoo.

"I think we have an ethical responsibility. We humans can be the problem but we can also be the solution," Ekernas said. "This is a space where we can help bring the species back that ought to be in Colorado."

While the re-introduction of wolves in Colorado has been polarizing, Ekernas said wolverines would have the exact opposite effect. He said wolverines are far less polarizing, considering they keep to themselves, are too small to cause issues with livestock and mostly clean up dead carcasses lying around our frozen Colorado high country.

"(A wolf) is a very different animal from a wolverine that's, you know, max 40 pounds," Ekernas said. "It's solitary. It's a weasel. Wolverines are generalists, they live everywhere from the prairies up to the highest peaks."

Climate Change-Wolverine
A Feb. 27, 2016, file photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, from a remote camera set by biologist Chris Stermer, shows a mountain wolverine in the Tahoe National Forest near Truckee, Calif., a rare sighting of the predator in the state. Chris Stermer / California Department of Fish and Wildlife via the Associated Press

Wolverines vanished from Colorado's landscape back in 1919 and now there are less than 400 in the lower 48 states. Colorado poses a promising environment for that population to grow in a place they once were. They need snow, something Colorado has plenty of and will continue to have for years to come. Plus, they're part of a "missing piece" of our ecosystem that's gone unchecked for almost a century; the marmot.

"The reality is, we're missing a predator of that species," Ekernas said. "That's what kind of one role that they play,  the other thing that they do is that they their cleanup crew, just like any scavenger out there, you know, oftentimes we think of vultures as scavengers, but they're really important mammalian scavengers out there."

As far as getting into trouble with ranchers -- similar to concerns with the wolf population reintroduction -- Ekernas said there have only been two recorded livestock depredations recorded in North America. These things eat rodents and carcasses and hide the rest of the time. Still, even if they're tough to spot, Ekernas said he hopes to one day see one in the wild, based on their spunky attitudes.

"They've been known to fight off grizzly bears, like, defend carcasses that they're feeding on," Ekernas said with a big smile. "They raise their young in 10 feet of snow ... sure, they are a little grumpy and that's part of what makes them so special."

While the noticeable benefit to the Colorado ecosystem is simply too tough to estimate considering there's no scientific data to point to, Ekernas said this is more about helping a species we pushed out of Colorado find its home again amongst the Rocky Mountains. 

 "The best thing that we know about them is more complexity is good," Ekernas said. "Aldo Leopold famously wrote that, you know, the first rule of intent by intelligent tinkering is don't throw away any pieces ... we've thrown away pieces in Colorado."

"One of the last missing pieces is wolverines, and we should bring them back," he said.

If you're looking for more information on these high country weasels, Rocky Mountain Wild, one of the organizations pushing for the bill to go through has a full webpage.

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