Lynx back at the forefront
Many people believe that reintroducing the lynx to Colorado triggered restrictions on federal lands. That’s wrong. The true story is a more complex tango between state and federal governments that goes back at least to 1994.
Jasper Carlton is near the core of the story. Usually talking with the speed and intensity of a battery of machine guns, Carlton was the feisty director the Biological Diversity Legal Foundation. In 1994, he petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Canada lynx as endangered under the powerful Endangered Species Act.
Carlton said he wanted to slow if not halt the steady encroachment of human activities on forested lands in Colorado. Because it doesn’t eat people or threaten livestock – it’s not much bigger than a large house cat, if decidedly less cuddly – the lynx wouldn’t directly threaten the resident human population, he reasoned.
It’s unclear, however, just how common the lynx was in Colorado. Some people say it was always scarce, but there’s no factual basis for that statement. Neither is there clear evidence of abundance. A 1911 federal survey of Colorado wildlife provided one of the few descriptions, “tolerably common.” The survey compiler, Merritt Cary, seemed to mean that trappers could distinguish them from bobcats and had found them from the San Juans to the Wyoming border.
But in Washington D.C., the Clinton administration rejected the advice of its own wildlife biologist in 1994 in refusing to extend protection to lynx in Colorado or any other state. Among the Fish and Wildlife Service’s arguments was that lynx need no protection in Colorado because they remained plentiful in Canada and Alaska.
The argument defied precedent. After all, our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, had been common in Alaska, but nonetheless was protected in Colorado. It was apparent that as long as Carlton and other environmental groups were willing to file lawsuits, eventually the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to list the lynx for protection. Carlton had both the law and the facts on his side.
Repopulating the Ark
Meanwhile, several biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife had been daydreaming about restoring a viable lynx population to Colorado. During the last 100 years, the state agency has repeatedly populated Colorado with species brought back from the brink of extirpation, as well as some that were not.
After all, Elk had been reduced to little more than 1,100 animals a century ago before elk from Wyoming were transplanted near Aspen. Deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope also nearly disappeared. River otters, peregrine falcons and several species of fish have also been restored.
Moose were also established in the Colorado during the 1970s and 1980s, despite evidence they were far less common even than lynx. Also brought in were pheasants, as well as various species of fish, including rainbow, brown, and brook trout, all exotic to Colorado but prized by hunters and anglers.
Finally, on a rafting trip of the Dolores River, state biologists persuaded then-director John Mummu to push for reintroduction. The lawsuits pending by Carlton and other environmental organizations gave them a powerful argument for doing so. It’s better, said state officials, to get lynx on the ground and figure out what was needed for them to survival instead of just guessing. When the lynx would be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the “best science available” would be used to determine habitat needs of lynx. What science as existed was all drawn from studies in Canada and Alaska.
“If you don’t recover the species, you’re still dealing with protected habitat (as required by the Endangered Species Act), but you’re dealing with a phantom species,” explains Gene Byrne, who headed up the Division of Wildlife’s recovery program in its early stages. “If you really want to get the species off the list, you have to recover the species.”
The Colorado Wildlife Commission agreed with this thinking, as did the ski industry. Chuck Lewis, then chairman of the wildlife commission, came from the ski industry, first at Vail, then at Copper Mountain and Eldora. Ski areas, he said, could expect continued difficulties with expansions once the lynx was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Better, he said, to figure out the compatibility of lynx and skiing.
Seed money from Vail
Much earlier, Vail Resorts had suggested this same potential compatibility. What if, asked one planner for the company, a bunch of lynx were put into the Vail ski area? Several years later, as controversy about the expansion then called Category III grew, state wildlife officials solicited a $200,000 contribution from Vail Resorts for a lynx transplant program. The company immediately agreed. With Vail paying the bills directly, lynx trapped in Alaska and British Columbia were released beginning in February 1999.
Byrne, who is now retired, says that without Vail’s money, the lynx reintroduction would have been slowed and perhaps killed. Had it been necessary to ask legislators for money, they might have said “no.” Many were beginning to see the lynx reintroduction as a proxy for return of the gray wolf. Unlike the previous species that had been restored, which were mostly herbivores, the lynx eats meat.
“It’s a carnivore,” Byrne says. “Any time you are dealing with a predator, there is a little more emotion involved, especially when that predator is a threatened and endangered species.”
Wildlife managers were also motivated to move fast for several reasons. They wanted to get lynx from Canada and Alaska before populations there crashed. They wanted to release plenty of lynx before they were listed under the Endangered Species Act, which would have essentially put the federal government in charge. And they were leery of being vetoed by the new administration of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.
By using private money and releasing the lynx on private land, they avoided the federal government’s public involvement process under the National Environmental Policy Act. This was despite every projection the lynx would immediately go to federal land.
So, yes, the reintroduction and the listing of the lynx are linked, but in a different way than is widely understood. Had no lynx been transplanted, managers of federal land – which constitutes 77 percent of land in Eagle County, and even higher percentages in Summit and Pitkin counties – would have been required to manage those lands as if there were lynx.
A year after the lynx reintroduction began, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency listed the lynx in Colorado and 13 other states of its original range as “threatened.”
Long at issue in Vail
Even before Carlton’s petition in 1994, lynx was a major issue in Vail’s ski area expansion, then called Category III. Among the last four lynx verified in Colorado was one killed by a trapper in 1973 at Vail. Then, in 1988, wildlife biologists, Rick Thompson and Richard Halfpenny, working for Vail Resorts, found lynx tracks in what is now called Blue Sky Basin, conjecturing that four lynx still existed there. In 1991, state wildlife biologists Bill Andree and Bill Heicher again reported finding paw prints.
Tom Allender, a planner at Vail during the Blue Sky expansion, says no trails were allowed in Command Bowl, located to the east of Pete’s Bowl, because it was considered to have the type of forest Canadian studies suggested was preferred lynx habitat. Lynx habitat needs also partly led to the decision to the narrow, braided trails in Blue Sky Basin, instead of the broad boulevards common in earlier expansions. While this is thought to benefit lynx, this trail design is also partly responsible for Blue Sky’s huge popularity among skiers.
Less successful has been the attempt to preserve lynx habitat between the ski trails. Skiers and snowboarders have routinely ignored the closures.
In the final months of the debate over Blue Sky Basin in 1997 and 1998, the lynx ballooned into a symbol. To many who opposed the expansion the lynx represented wilderness being crushed by an expanding, ever-more-powerful ski and real estate industry. The debate gained national prominence in October 1998 when an arson fire burned down the Two Elk cafeteria. No suspects have ever been named, although circumstantial evidence points toward a shadowy animal-rights group, the Earth Liberation Front.
The next summer, a recently-released lynx may very well have trotted through the expansion area even as helicopter crews began hauling out sawed trees. The mountain cat was squashed near Vail Pass while trying to cross Interstate 70.
1911 – Federal report finds lynx “tolerably common” from Wyoming to Durango.
1920s-30s – Poisoned bait aimed at coyotes kills large numbers of lynx, bobcats and other predators. Poison outlawed in 1973.
1972 – Trapping of lynx banned in Colorado.
1968-1973 – Final four documented killings of lynx in Colorado, near Silver Plume, Leadville, Thomasville and Vail. At least one lynx escapes Vail trapper.
1988-91 – Lynx paw prints detected by wildlife biologists in snow in Blue Sky Basin.
1994 – Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitions to get lynx listed as “endangered” under Endangered Species Act.
1997 – Colorado Division of Wildlife sets out to reintroduce lynx.
1998 – Two Elk lodge on Vail Mountain is set on fire amid controversy about impacts to lynx habitat.
1999 – First of 96 lynx released in a two-year program.
2000 – Lynx listed for protection as “threatened” under Endangered Species Act.
2002 – Colorado Wildlife Commission agrees to releasing an additional 170 lynx.
2003 – First 16 kittens found.
Opposition within Colorado was strong in 1998 and early 1999 on the eve of lynx reintroduction. Since then, the program seems to have gained acceptance.
In 1998, the Colorado Woolgrowers Association and other agriculture groups argued that effects of reintroducing lynx had not been documented. Guides in the San Juan Mountains predicted the demise of ptarmigan, a species already skidding.
Media criticism was also broad and sometimes intense. Editorially, the Rocky Mountain News ridiculed the program. At the rival Denver Post, a hunting and fishing columnist described the lynx reintroduction program as a “waste of money.”
Even some environmental groups, including the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, offered a cold shoulder to the reintroduction, arguing that it was better to wait until more studies had been done. Once the reintroduction got underway, and several lynx died of starvation, animal rights activists loudly denounced the effort. Newspapers were filled with letters of protest.
Gene Byrne, who headed up the reintroduction, recalls it as a dark time. He and others even questioned if they should scrap the program.
“There was a lot of soul-searching going on,” Byrne says. “It was a tough time on all of us, with a lot of tears, a lot of sadness.
This distrust of the wildlife agency may have been reflected in an edict from Colorado legislators the next winter that henceforth, they would have to approve the reintroduction of any species. Clearly, many were thinking of another predator, the grey wolf.
Now, the opposition seems to have softened. The Rocky Mountain News has essentially adopted the legal logic of state wildlife biologists while remaining skeptical of their biology and motives. Even animal-rights activists have softened their criticism.
Livestock groups opposed that initial release, fearful that it would cause diminished use of federal lands for grazing. If now seeming to accept the lynx reintroduction as a lesser of evils, they begrudge having their livestock play second fiddle to lynx on federal lands.
“We’re still unhappy with the lynx issue,” says Bonnie Kline, of the Colorado Woolgrowers. “It’s not a depredation issue. It’s a matter of getting regulated out of business.”
Greg Walcher, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, essentially agrees. He told an interviewer in May that federal land managers may use the Endangered Species Act as a way to end livestock grazing.
Paranoia? Not necessarily, says one 30-year state wildlife officer.
“This puts the livestock owners on guard, gives them a real sense of paranoia that their (grazing allotments) will be cut, and I don’t think it’s an unfounded fear. Some will try to use the lynx to remove livestock operators from public lands.”
Ironically, while agreeing with Walcher in this instance, the wildlife officer says he and many others in Colorado are muzzled by Walcher from speaking with reporters.
Ski company payment: extortion, bribe, or neither?
Vail Resorts Inc., which operates five ski resorts in Colorado – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin – provided the seed money, $200,000, for a lynx reintroduction program that has now cost $2 million. Some have called it extortion, others a thinly-disguised bribe. Both charges lack strong evidence.
Those charging bribery point out that the lynx were subsequently released 200 miles from Vail, in the San Juans. Since the last incontrovertible evidence of lynx in Colorado was at Vail, in 1973, according to this argument, that’s where lynx should have been released.
This argument ignores several facts. First, Vail wasn’t the only place where lynx were once found. At about the same time, trappers killed lynx at three other locations: near Silver Plume; south of Leadville; and east of Basalt. The thread here is that all are reasonably close to I-70, where traffic has tripled since the last lynx were seen.
Why release lynx anywhere close to rural Colorado’s busiest highway? When lynx were reintroduced into New York’s Adirondack Mountains in the 1980s, many were killed on roads that were far less heavily used.
Ski area operators along the I-70 corridor may have been privately relieved that no lynx have been released near here. However, there was no clear pressure to choose the San Juans, which were chosen because a hastily completed study of habitat suggested it would be best.
The argument that Vail Resorts was extorted to donate $200,000 by the Colorado Division of Wildlife also wilts in the face of scrutiny. Andy Daly, then president of Vail Resorts, says the state wildlife agency had already given the ski company the criteria of what would be necessary in order to get its recommended approval for the expansion. Vail Resorts, he said, agreed to donate the money after those criteria were issued.
“We were uncertain what would happen with the lynx, but we actually felt we were better served by having lynx reintroduced to help us and everybody in the state determine the survivability rather than to live with years of uncertainty,” he says. “I think it was a legitimate strategy, the outcome of which is obviously still unknown.”
The contribution does fall within a pattern. Without any particular pressure, Vail Resorts through the years has spent $700,000 on study of elk movements between Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek. The company’s major push, like that of the rest of the ski industry, has been to try to demonstrate compatibility with wildlife. It will, however, be years before any conclusion can be drawn.
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