Wolverine plan threatens Pelican Butte ski project
September 29, 1998
By BETH QUINN
A war over wolverines is shaping up in the high Cascades, with environmentalists seeking a 330,000-acre refuge for the elusive predator that includes land scheduled for logging and resort development.
The latest skirmish took place Monday when the Oregon Natural Resources Council and 22 other conservation groups appealed for the third time a proposed timber sale in the Winema National Forest where 13.8 million board feet would be cut on 2,110 acres.
But the real battle may be joined next month when the environmental review is released on nearby Pelican Butte, the $17 million ski resort planned for an 8,036-foot mountain 25 miles northwest of Klamath Falls.
“In the Winema forest plan, they never once mention the word wolverine,” says the ONRC’s Wendell Wood. “I believe the agency has not wanted to confront the problem. This is a species that could get in the way of cutting the last remaining roadless areas.”
A threatened species in Oregon since 1973, the wolverine was proposed for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1994.
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found insufficient grounds for listing, federal and state biologists have since been scrambling to identify local populations of wolverines.
“We’re trying to get a little bit ahead of the curve on it and not wait for it to be listed,” said Elaine Rybak, a Forest Service threatened and endangered species biologist.
Getting ahead of the curve in Southern Oregon has included two years of winter aerial surveys to locate tracks left by reproducing female wolverines, which den on northern exposures above the timberline. Earlier this year, surveyors identified possible wolverine tracks on Mount McLoughlin, 5 miles southwest of Pelican Butte, and Devil’s Peak, 5 miles north of Pelican Butte.
Biologist Simon Wray of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was one of those surveyors, and he’s confident the tracks in the snow were made by wolverines.
“I think they’re out there, but I think they’re out there in very low numbers,” he says. “I think this area has been marginal in terms of habitat.”
The Winema’s Klamath District Ranger Rob Shull denies that the national forest has ignored wolverines in planning.
“Wolverines have been suspected, if not confirmed, on the Winema National Forest for a long time,” he says.
In his judgment, logging the Cold Springs/Switchback timber sale wouldn’t necessarily harm wolverines.
“They’re by no means restricted, at least in those sighting reports, to wild or undeveloped lands,” he says.
But Shull says that the development of a major ski resort with four chairlifts and 2,800 skiers a day could be a different story.
“Pelican Butte will probably eliminate a chunk of habitat from the wolverine’s use, but what does that mean? We don’t know,” he says.
What foresters and scientists don’t know about wolverines far exceeds concrete knowledge of the species. Worldwide, only six research projects have been conducted, one by Idaho Fish and Game Department biologist Jeff Copeland.
“In the U.S., they don’t eat your cows, they don’t tip over your garbage cans, we don’t trap ’em or shoot ’em, so we just don’t care,” he says.
Or didn’t until the listing proposal raised everyone’s sights.
Wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family, often compared in size to a bear cub, with long claws and the ability to run, climb and swim. Although fur trappers who tangled with trapped wolverines or saw their catch stolen by them reported a ferocious temperament, researchers such as Copeland dismiss such legends. Hunters by summer and carrion-eaters in winter, wolverines appear to need hundreds of square miles of range and to have low reproductive rates.
Researchers say wolverines are most vulnerable to human disturbance in winter, when females retreat above the treeline to den. They say a fragmented forest may also be a problem for the species.
“I can’t say that a timber sale or a road is bad for a wolverine, but lots of them are certainly bad as the impact accumulates,” Copeland says.
The wolverine may offer the ONRC fresh ammunition in its long-running battle to heighten protection on 30,000 acres of roadless forest near the 116,300-acre Sky Lakes Wilderness and 183,180-acre Crater Lake National Park.
That possibility has not gone unnoticed by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Journal, which termed the wolverine refuge proposal “More Eco-Fantasy From The Oregon National Resources Council.”
“There may be a wolverine in an area 500 miles in radius centered on the Sky Lakes Wilderness (that’s an area of about 785,000 square miles) but there probably isn’t,” a recent issue reported. “The `wolverine habitat’ dodge is just the latest chapter in the campaign of emotionalism, subterfuge, and lies mounted by the Oregon Natural Resources Council and its clones in an attempt to stop economic progress and cripple the Northwest’s economy.”
Copeland estimates that 500 square miles of wolverine habitat contain no more than six animals.
No one claims to know how many square miles or contiguous acres are enough to support a healthy population of wolverines in the high Cascades.
To the ONRC’s Wood, that’s reason enough to hold off logging and development in the roadless forests that remain on the Cascade crest.
“Over time, as we make these wild areas smaller and smaller, the size of the critter becomes smaller and smaller. Yes, we’ve lost the grizzly bears and the wolves,” he says.
“Most likely, as we carve this area up into smaller and smaller cabbage patches, we lose the ability of the land to support these kinds of animals.”
|Possible wolverine sightingsWolverines inhabit the high Cascades — fact or fiction?
Spotting the reclusive predators — or their tracks — is never easy, but possible sightings have been recorded in recent years: