Can lynx, snowmobiles share Vail Pass? |

Can lynx, snowmobiles share Vail Pass?

Bob Berwyn
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Summit Daily News file photoA snowmobiler guides his machine through the deep snows of Vail Pass.

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Intense recreational use at Vail Pass is crowding threatened lynx in the area, U.S. Forest Service biologists determined in a recent study.

The biological assessment, launched in part because commercial snowmobile outfits want permission to increase the number of guided and unguided trips on the pass, is part of a long-running analysis for the 50,000-acre Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.

Some commercial snowmobile operators say they think the area can handle more traffic without hurting wildlife.

More snowbilers also are going into the area on their own. The results of the study suggest that the capacity of the area to provide for recreation and wildlife habitat has already been exceeded.

“There’s a lot going on up there,” said White River National Forest biologist Liz Roberts.

Vail Pass is an important trailhead for backcountry hut access, commercial and private snowmobiling and crosscountry skiing, she said.

The study was sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about three weeks ago. As keeper of the endangered and threatened species list, the agency studies how land management decisions will affectlisted species. The agency listed lynx as a threatened species in 2000.

“We have to make sure any action by a federal agency does not jeopardize the species,” said Kurt Broderdorp, the Grand Junction-based Fish and Wildlife biologist who will review the Forest Service study.

Broderdorp and Roberts both said it’s unlikely that human activity at Vail Pass could threaten existence of the species across the lower 48 states.

The Vail Pass recreation area overlaps with a major route of travel for lynx, which don’t live in the area permanently, but use it on a regular basis, Roberts said.

The nearest permanent population is to the south in the Collegiate Range outside of Salida and Buena Vista, Roberts said.

If the Colorado lynx population expands, the cats are likely to start living permanently in areas like Vail Pass, she said.

The state wildlife agency meanwhile is gathering data on lynx movements. Radio-collared lynx have been located in and around the Vail Pass area on a regular basis, and two lynx have been killed trying to cross I-70 in the area.

But not everyone is sure that lynx visit Vail Pass.

“I’ve been riding up here for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a lynx,” said Nova Guides owner Steve Pittel. “There’s no stinking lynx; they don’t live here, they live in Canada. That’s why they’re Canada lynx.”

“We just don’t have the habitat here. There’s no rabbits,” Pittel said, referring to snowshoe hares, primary food source for lynx. “If they can prove to me lynx are here, I’ll give the cats a little leeway.”

The longtime local is one of the people who could be affected if the Forest Service changes the way it runs Vail Pass. Pittel is seeking a new permit to run more commercial trips in the area.

“I think the area can accommodate more people on the same trail system,” Pittel said. “Vail Pass is a great recreational resource. It’s perfect terrain and easily accessible, right alongside the Interstate. I think it would be foolish for them to try and limit the number of people that go out there.

“What are they trying to do, just keep it all for the tree huggers? To me, it’s something they just keep poking at us.”

Roberts, the Forest Service biologist, said there is no intent to shut down Vail Pass. The study was driven by the recognition that Vail Pass in an important recreation area, she said.

In the bigger picture, the Vail Pass area does still contain numerous pockets of good habitat where lynx can forage and build dens. These areas are out near the fringes of the recreation area.

The challenge is the high density of trails and play areas at the center of the area, Roberts said.

“We have some really big barriers with the use up there. Lynx would not move across the area during the day,” Roberts said.

– 219 lynx were transplanted to Colorado from Alaska and Canada between 1999 and 2007.

– 98 adult lynx deaths were documented between 1999 and 2007; about one-third human-caused, including gunshots and collisions with cars.

– 2 lynx populations live in the San Juans and the Collegiate Range.

– 11 states have been visited by lynx released in Colorado, including Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

– 116 lynx kittens have been born in Colorado since the start of the program.

” Source: Colorado Division of Wildlife 2006-2007 annual lynx report.

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