Colorado left out of lynx puzzle
SUMMIT COUNTY – Federal agencies have taken another few tentative steps on the long and tangled path to establishing a conservation framework for the threatened lynx.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued a final “critical habitat designation” for the rare cat, identifying about 1,800 square miles of territory deemed worthy of strong protection. But in that designation, the group left all of Colorado out of the equation.And at nearly the same time, the Forest Service released its latest version of specific forest plan changes intended to establish protective guidelines in the Rocky Mountain region, including the White River National Forest.The habitat designation was immediately slammed by conservation groups, who claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service is ignoring an Endangered Species Act mandate to protect all the areas needed to conserve and recover listed species.”We need to step up and protect the habitat,” said Jacob Smith, of the Center for Native Ecosystems. Smith said that, despite the early success of Colorado’s lynx re-introduction program, protection for the cat depends on ensuring adequate habitat.
The Boulder-based group will likely challenge the federal ruling in court once again – just the latest incremental move in a long-running legal tussle over the lynx. The Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to list lynx under the Endangered Species Act in the first place by a lawsuit. Conservation groups then sued the agency again on the critical habitat ruling.Local impacts?The latest regulatory and legal skirmishes won’t make all that much difference in day-to-day management of the forest, said Vern Phinney, Forest Service biologist for the Dillon Ranger District, covering Summit County.”We have to follow the same process of consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service whether there is critical habitat or not,” Phinney said. The reason no critical habitat was designated on National Forest lands is because the agency is already implementing lynx conservation measures under a joint agency conservation strategy, he explained.As far the forest plan amendments, Phinney said there may still be some discussion over certain proposed exemptions that would make it easier to gain approval for certain projects.
“If some of those exemptions are approved, it could make it easier for a ski area to develop a new run on the interior part of the ski area,” he said. Other exemptions are related to energy development on federal lands in western Colorado. When the draft forest plan amendments were first released, conservation groups claimed the regulations were so loose as to be nearly meaningless.The White River National Forest included a set of lynx conservation standards and guidelines in a 2002 forest plan update. The Forest was initially excluded from the regional plan, but recently added back in for the sake of consistency across the region, Phinney said.Ski area mitigation
“The White River is in a better position than most,” Phinney said, explaining that the forest already requires one-for-one mitigation for impacts to winter foraging habitat. That means, for example, that Arapahoe Basin will need to create as much winter foraging habitat as it impacts under the proposal to add lift-served skiing in Montezuma Bowl. The recent approval for expansion of lift-served skiing at Copper Mountain includes similar mitigation requirements.The Forest Service has also tried to manage other potential impacts, including snow-compacted trails and nighttime activities like grooming and snowmaking in an effort to minimize impacts.So far, no lynx have established permanent residence in Summit County. For now, Summit County is more of a transit area for lynx moving north and south, studies have shown.”They are moving this way. Last winter we had one settle in the Homestake drainage,” Phinney said, referring to a creek in the Holy Cross Wilderness, not too far from nearby Minturn. “It’s only a matter of time before one sets up housekeeping here,” he said. Although generally characterized as reclusive critters, some of the lynx in Colorado have established territories close to areas of human activities. One of the two lynx recently killed by poachers in southwestern Colorado had a home range that encompassed much of the ski terrain at Durango Mountain Resort, Phinney said. The cat didn’t use the area during the day, but criss-crossed the ski trails at night. Another lynx has a home range that overlaps with parts of Telluride’s permitted ski terrain, he added.
“The males sometimes are as bold as heck,” Phinney said. Some of the lynx released early in the state’s re-introduction effort were trapped in remote areas and may never have come close to any intense human activity.For this winter, Phinney said he plans on doing some monitoring in Jones Gulch to try and measure the impacts of Keystone’s permitted snowcat skiing expansion.The Forest Service did similar monitoring around Vail’s Blue Sky Basin in past years, measuring a “huge increase” in ski tracks in the area, and subsequent decline in snowshoe hare use, Phinney said.If the same thing happens in Jones Gulch, the agency will work with the resort to try and limit the impacts, Phinney said.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado CO