Not in Michigan or the Upper Great Lakes, but in Colorado and California where
state legislatures are considering bills to support reintroduction into montane habitats…

The immediate reason for this renewed interest seems to be recent glimpses of young males from established populations going on walk-about. The more general reason is a desire on the part of some non-governmental organizations to restore native species to any place they might have been before settlement. According to Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity: “Colorado should do it on the principle that wolverines belong in Colorado. They’re part of the natural ecosystem”. And, borrowing from the wolf restoration playbook, some proponents have taken to calling wolverines the ‘embodiment of wilderness.’

Relative to wolves, they probably are. Wolverines seem to have specific habitat requirements, while wolves, like coyotes, are generalists that probably could flourish close to human development if they were allowed to.

Previously, the Colorado legislature directed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop status and habitat suitability estimates for all of Colorado’s threatened and endangered species. Agency biologists believe that Colorado, at present, has sufficient high montane habitat to support between 100-180 wolverines. Whether or not the restoration efforts proceed, and regardless of their success, wolverines are just one more illustration of anthropogenic whimsy and the power of charisma.

The broader national story is that wolverines were extirpated from the Lower 48 about a century ago, mostly as an unintended consequence of wolf and coyote predation control programs. Wolverines hold large territories and, by all accounts, never were abundant. They’re mostly scavengers and, therefore, especially vulnerable to trapping and poisoning campaigns meant for other carnivores. Still abundant in Canada and Alaska, wolverines have recolonized portions of Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Because reintroduction will require that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designate relocated animals as an experimental non-essential population, nothing is likely to happen anytime soon. But if or when it does, the costs of reintroduction and management of the reintroduced population will fall to state departments of fish and wildlife. In turn, because state-based conservation of every kind depends on license dollars and hunting and fishing excise taxes, it’s hunters and anglers (not wolverine advocates or the general public) that will be picking up much of the tab.

Putting aside the very real concern that wolverine restoration faces growing and largely unmanageable challenges from climate change (wolverines are a boreal species adapted for long, cold winters), there’s a more fundamental issue of equity.

After all, why is wolverine restoration in the Lower 48 more important than the restoration of other extirpated species?

One obvious reason is that they are driven by charisma, not ecological importance. It’s easy to generate public enthusiasm for wolves, lynx, and wolverines. And yet, at least from the perspectives of water quality, ecosystem integrity, sustainability, and ecosystem health, it might be more important to fund the recovery of the more than 200 species of endangered North American mussels.

The fundamental problem has been growing for more than 50 years. Since the federal Endangered Species Act was passed, more than 1700 species have been cataloged as imperiled, yet the list remains little more than an unprioritized and underfunded grab bag. Of the roughly $1.2 billion spent annually on endangered and threatened species, roughly half goes towards the recovery of salmon and steelhead along the West Coast. Most of the remainder is spent on a short list of easily popularized creatures: wolves, wolverines, lynx, manatees, right whales, grizzly bears, and spotted owls. At the bottom of the list of funded creatures is the secretive Virginia fringed mountain snail ($100 was spent on it in 2020), and another 200 species on which nothing was spent at all.

Perhaps it’s time to question whether endangered species priorities should be driven by the preferences of a growing industry of non-governmental conservation organizations and what they can sell to a well-meaning but disinterested public. While all species are intrinsically valuable, it’s reasonable to propose that some species may be more important to ecosystem integrity than others. Conservation budgets aren’t going to increase anytime soon. At the same time, conservation challenges are increasing rapidly. The blunt reality is that some (even many) species already are beyond saving, at least in the long-term, because of climate change, invasive species, and wildlife disease.

Now might be a good moment to begin looking at rational alternatives. For example, if wolverines are doing well in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, do we need to reintroduce them into shrinking montane habitats in the intermountain west? If wolves are thriving in parts of the west and Upper Great Lakes, why isn’t that ecologically sufficient? The number of threatened and endangered species continues to increase and includes species that are fundamentally important for a host of human priorities, e.g., pollination of agricultural crops. It’s time to recognize that popularity contests aren’t getting us where we need to be and are better described as a distraction that undercuts what we might otherwise be able to achieve.