Lynx reintroduction, wildfire measures conflict
The latest effort to reintroduce the Lynx to Colorado’s wilderness may be going up in flames.Conservation activists claim that a lawsuit filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) is a ploy to turn public opinion against Colorado’s lynx recovery effort and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), using the fear of wildfires as a tool to undermine the reintroduction.The MSLF challenged the lynx reintroduction in federal court in January, claiming the program could interfere with efforts to mitigate wildfire hazards. But Federal land managers say they have not abandoned any fuel mitigation projects because of lynx concerns.MSLF attorney Steve Lechner says he will seek a temporary restraining order and ask for an injunction to prevent the release of additional lynx this spring. The Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) plans to release 50 of the cats in the San Juans beginning April 1, and then up to 130 more in the next several years. Those releases are in addition to the 96 animals transplanted from Canada in 1999 and 2000. The long-term goal is to establish a self-sustaining population.The Mountain States Legal Foundation is well known for representing private property owners in battles against the federal government. The group’s board of directors is heavy with executives from the timber, mining, petroleum and construction industries. Former Interior Secretary James Watt helped found the organization and Gale Norton, current Interior Secretary, worked there for four years.Now Norton is named as a defendant in the latest lynx lawsuit, filed Jan. 16 in U.S. District Court in Denver, and Colorado Wild watchdog Rocky Smith says it will be interesting to see how the Fish and Wildlife Service responds.Under the Bush administration, federal agencies have been slow to defend conservation-oriented policies such as the Forest Service roadless rule. Smith says Colorado Wild may try to intervene in the case on behalf of the defendants."We’re filing the suit on behalf of our members, ranchers and farmers who live in and around the forests where the lynx are," said MSLF attorney Steve. "With the lynx present, the Forest Service won’t do the thinning needed. It’s a way to lock up the land," Lechner said.With its reintroduction program, the state is acting as a "puppet" of the federal government, he added."I think it’s just a major waste of taxpayer money. I don’t see how the feds can get out from under the requirement of doing a NEPA study," Lechner continued, comparing the lynx program to the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone. But in that case, the federal government released the animals, making it a federal action that required NEPA scrutiny.Colorado’s lynx program is state-run, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did issue a permit to the Division of Wildlife that enables biologists to recapture and study transplanted animals. That federal permit, along with the fact that lynx live predominantly on federal lands, is the NEPA "trigger," according to Lechner.Lynx roastBut how much truth is there to the charge that the lynx recovery effort could interfere with wildfire mitigation activities across Colorado forests?Federal officials generally agree that fuel reduction work in the new “Red Zone”, has not been affected, says Bruce Wilson, deputy team leader for the National Fire Plan effort at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain regional office.Wilson said the fire plan is focused on reducing wildfire hazards in the Red Zone, the so-called areas of wildland-urban interface. The areas most in need of wildfire mitigation work are mid-elevation lodgepole and ponderosa pine stands, where subdivisions sprawl into the fringes of the forest."Lynx is not a major issue in those areas," Wilson says.In Colorado, lynx generally stay in the high-altitude spruce and fir stands, far from most homes and subdivisions. If and when fuel treatments are planned for those ecosystems, lynx issues would be more prominent, Wilson says.”It’s important to understand the difference between short-term efforts to reduce wildfire hazards around communities and more long-term efforts to look at forest health on a landscape level,” he adds."I’m not aware of any project that has been abandoned," said Nancy Warren, threatened and endangered species program leader at the agency’s regional headquarters. Warren said that, since lynx are already listed as threatened, the Forest Service is managing habitat in accordance with that status, regardless of whether the state releases any additional animals. In fact, if the state’s program is successful, Warren said it could mean lynx are de-listed sooner."Federal agencies are understanding of the need to create defensible space within 200 feet of homes," said White River National Forest biologist Keith Gietzentanner. "There have been no issues so far on (fuel reduction) projects we’ve been working on," Gietzentanner said.But it could be a different story if there are proposals to do fuels treatment in the "backcountry," Gietzentanner said. "I would see that as something that would need to be discussed," he said.