Lynx issues resurface in WRNF plan appeal
A Canadian report of questionable scientific validity is a key piece of Vail Resorts’ challenge to the newly revised White River National Forest plan. VR officials say the Forest Service should have incorporated data from the report in the new plan. But several leading lynx researchers say the document’s conclusions are anchored by poorly supported anecdotal evidence, and not by scientific observation.Compiled by Calgary-based IRIS Environmental Systems, Inc., the $20,000 report essentially an assessment of lynx behavior around ski areas was funded by Vail Resorts several years ago when Keystone was trying to win Forest Service approval for its proposed expansion into Jones Gulch, a key wildlife movement corridor.IRIS recently completed another report for Vail Resorts on the Cucumber Gulch wetlands in Breckenridge concluding that a planned gondola would not adversely affect wildlife. Some critics charge that the Canadian research company favors industry, providing scientific support for planned development projects.The IRIS lynx report was once posted on the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) Website, but the ski industry trade group blocked public access to the document after The Vail Trail and Ten Mile Times interviewed other lynx researchers who raised questions about its scientific validity.Lynx are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, compelling federal agencies to work toward recovering the species and protecting its habitat. The new WRNF plan includes standards and guidelines based on a lynx conservation strategy developed by a team of state and federal and university wildlife biologists. Those conservation measures enable the Forest Service to manage industrial forest uses like snowmaking, grooming and logging. Even non-motorized recreational uses like cross-country skiing and mountain biking could be affected by efforts to minimize lynx impacts and improve habitat.Much of Colorado’s good lynx habitat is in spruce-fir forests on high, north-facing slopes. In parts of the White River National Forest, that habitat often coincides with prime lift-served and backcountry ski terrain. As part of their efforts to protect and recover lynx, federal wildlife biologists have adopted a policy of no regret, trying to avoid impacts whenever possible, at least until they have more scientific data to work with. Among other things, that could mean no net gain in the number of compacted snow trails, which may allow coyotes and other predators to access some areas to the detriment of lynx.In the Southern Rockies, where lynx habitat is naturally fragmented to begin with, the cats may need every scrap of suitable terrain especially during the early stages of the recovery effort, as transplanted animals disperse across the region searching for home territories with plenty of food. And making sure the cats can move between larger chunks of good terrain is a key part of the conservation plan, reflecting the growing awareness among conservation biologists that habitat connectivity is crucial to maintaining biodiversity.The scientists in charge of the lynx conservation and recovery effort don’t think lynx habitat and ski area operations are mutually exclusive. The idea, according to wildlife biologists like Gary Patton, is to make ski areas and the surrounding terrain "permeable" to lynx movements. Patton formerly led the federal lynx effort in Colorado and is now part of a Forest Service effort to create a regional wildlife conservation plan.The shy, wide-ranging cats aren’t likely to take up residence at a ski resort, but may need to cross the area as they move between larger blocks of suitable habitat, Patton says. And that means forest officials need the ability to carefully manage those areas, for example by protecting so-called diurnal security habitat near resorts, where lynx can hide and rest during the day, and minimizing human disturbances at night to enable passage across the area.Environmental activists like Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation say officials have already watered down lynx conservation plans to the point that they are nearly meaningless, and have challenged the listing decision in court, claiming the cat deserves the more protective "endangered" status.But in challenging the lynx standards and guidelines, Vail Resorts apparently wants the Forest Service to throw out even some of those meager measures. VR officials claim the IRIS report shows that compacted snow trails and normal ski area operations may not have a detrimental impact on lynx.But the IRIS report is not universally accepted. In fact, Rick Thompson, a wildlife biologist who often performs wildlife studies for Vail Resorts, cautioned against extrapolating information from the Canadian document during an earlier interview. Thompson said circumstances are very different. The Canadian ski areas where lynx were observed are surrounded by vast stretches of suitable habitat, he says. By contrast, Thompson says good lynx habitat in the Southern Rockies is patchy and fragmented at best.In another earlier interview, Clayton Apps, a Canadian researcher who recently completed a rigorous lynx study, cautioned against characterizing the IRIS report as a study. He explained that much of the IRIS document was based on a review of existing literature. Most of the accounts of lynx behavior around ski areas lynx following snow grooming equipment and crossing trails and parking lots for example were isolated incidents reported by ski area personnel. Apps says that, without establishing a context for those reports, it’s impossible to draw accurate scientific conclusions. The cats may have been displaying atypical behavior, perhaps driven by near-starvation, he said.Patton, the former USFWS researcher, said in a previous interview that the IRIS report did not add anything substantial to the existing body of lynx science. According to Patton, the report was tailored to provide support for Keystone’s planned Jones Gulch expansion.