Forest Service may watch fewer species | VailDaily.com

Forest Service may watch fewer species

Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY – The next time Forest Service biologist Vern Phinney heads into the field to count pipits, pygmy nuthatches and other plants and animals, his checklist will only be half as long.That’s because the White River National Forest, which also surrounds Eagle County, wants to chop in half the species from a list intended to help the agency understand how human activities and natural processes affect the forest. By studying populations of so-called “representative species,” biologists can extrapolate a larger picture of forest dynamics. In other words, keeping track of pipit nests and breeding in high alpine grasslands potentially helps Phinney understand the if activities like hiking and mountain biking are doing damage.In all, the White River proposes to drop half of the 16 species on the list of so-called “Management Indicator Species” and replace several others. Northern sage grouse, pygmy nuthatch, black swift, juniper titmouse, Macgillivary’s warbler, alpine willow communities, pinyon-juniper stands, brook trout and brown trout are all slated for removal, while snowshoe hare will be replaced with lodgepole pine and horned lark by American pipit.National Forest watchdogs said the cuts will mean less accurate ecological measurements on the 2.3 million-acre forest, but Forest officials said the proposal will help them better do their job.”The changes will give us the ability to use our limited resources more effectively,” White River National Forest ecologist Keith Gietzentanner said. Replacing snowshoe hare with lodgepole pine, for instance, will better enable the Forest Service to determine if they’re getting the early stage of lodgepole growth that’s an important food source for snowshoe hares, which, in turn, are a key food source for threatened Canada lynx, Gietzentanner said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect monitoring in the field at all,” Phinney said. “If anything, it’s going to make it easier. The changes we’ve made are species that are easier to monitor and they’ll still tell us what we want to know.”Replacing northern sage grouse with Brewer’s sparrow will help the agency better monitor that shrubby habitat, Gietzentanner said, explaining that the grouse is difficult to monitor, and that the sparrow occupies nearly the same habitat. But it’s not clear if the sparrow is as sensitive to disturbances – from gas drilling activities, for example.Removal of alpine willow communities leaves the list without any representatives from high alpine wetlands ecosystems, which have been harmed by past mining operations and ski area construction. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been worried about long-lasting damage to sensitive alpine wetlands.”That’s just wrong,” said Rocky Smith, director of Colorado Wild’s Forest Watch program. “They’re just not doing their job if they don’t have any way to monitor alpine ecosystems. How are you supposed to know what’s happening if you aren’t tracking (these species).”Vail, Colorado