Lynx ruling hits Eagle, Summit counties
A Federal Circuit Court Judge has ruled the Fish and U.S. Wildlife Service did not properly categorize the lynx’s status, nor did it indicate its probable habitat in a timely manner.
Fallout from this nocturnal, snowshoe hare-eating feline stems from a successful lawsuit brought against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Defenders of Wildlife. It’s the fourth successful suit in a decade brought by the animal rights group against the agency. Some experts say the decision may speed up listing the lynx as an endangered species.
The ruling, which undoes agreements between wildlife and land-management agencies, already has slowed the land-use decision-making apparatus of the U.S. Forest Service, and land managers are tiptoeing around the issue like a furtive lynx on unfamiliar terrain. It puts on hold a multi-agency land-use review agreement regarding potential lynx habitat.
“We don’t know what to expect. We’re still reviewing the decision,” said Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein.
Those impacts from the Dec. 26 federal district court decision have already hit the U.S. Forest Service offices in Colorado, sending ripples across the country.
Lots of land
In Eagle and Summit counties, the decision affects a significant chunk of acreage. Approximately half the White River National Forest’s 2.3 million acres, or close to 1,200 square miles, is potential lynx habitat. Thirteen northern states and several million acres also contain lynx habitat, experts said.
Lynx live a solitary existence, and except for mating season, the cats require a home range of 25 to 100 square miles.
The dangling question is just how the wildlife agency will depict the lynx: “threatened” or “endangered.” It has 180 days in which to decide how and where it will do that.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger downplayed the decision.
“This shouldn’t slow anything down,” she said.
But land-management agencies aren’t so sure, she said, largely because of the uncertainty of operating within a new decision-making framework. The issue has the makings of a bureaucratic nightmare.
Defender of Wildlife’s Mike Leahy said land-management agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management aren’t pleased to see the decision.
“These agencies like to be able to conduct their own business,” he said. “They don’t like to be told how to do it. This doesn’t prevent agencies from doing anything. It just requires them to better assess impacts of any project.”
A land-management tool
Endangered and threatened species have been used for years as a de facto land-management tool by environmental groups.
“Federal land-management practices are actually causing species to decline and causing them to be placed on the Endangered Species Act,” said Defender of Wildlife’s lead litigator, Mike Senatore. “One of the goals under the Endangered Species Act is to reform management practices, so they are consistent with species conservation.”
Senatore and others within the organization said they believe the ruling will likely cause the lynx to be moved from “threatened” to “endangered.”
Common in Canada, lynx have been eliminated from many parts of the United States. They live in dense forests of spruce and fir. Lynx have been killed by hunters and trappers in Eagle County and have been intermittently found in Colorado, which is believed to be the southern edge of its range in North America.
Three years ago, the state Division of Wildlife transplanted 96 lynx in the San Juan mountains, southwestern Colorado, to re-establish their population. Some of those lynx traveled through Eagle and Summit Counties. One was subsequently struck and killed by a vehicle on Vail Pass. Another 180 are to be transplanted in the next five years.
Slowing things down
The December court decision stops a land-use assessment process developed jointly by the Forest Service and The Fish and Wildlife Service for reviewing potential impacts on lynx and its habitat.
Uncertainty will further slow what has been described as glacially-paced decision-making by federal agencies as they determine what they can and cannot do on the lands they administer. The ruling will not affect land-use decisions already made at the time of the judge’s decision.
One land-use decision that could be affected by the judicial ruling is the West Lake Creek land exchange. The 400 acres of property involved likely will have to be reassessed when lynx habitat is designated. Another land swap involving three acres at the base of Vail Mountain and 296 acres elsewhere in the forest also will likely see additional review.
Instead of observing an agreed-upon protocol for assessing projects within potential lynx habitat, the multi-agency review will require a more formal review with a written biological assessment.
“People are still trying to sort out the implications of the ruling,” said Forest Service biologist Joe Doerr, adding that the biological assessment for Vail Resorts’ controversial Category III expansion, now known as Blue Ski Basin, was nearly 90 pages in length.
Doerr and fellow-biologist Vern Phinney said decision-making and review of things like new ski trails or wildfire fuel-reduction projects would be ranked according to a two-tiered approach, depending on whether the activity will have an adverse affect on lynx. On top of that will be a layer of Forest Service regulations.
“It could be excruciatingly slow,” Phinney acknowledged.
One more thing
The decision to attempt to save the lynx may have unintended consequences. If it delays forest health projects designed to remove fuelwood, it could contribute to a catastrophic wildfire that could eradicate tens of thousand of acres of lynx habitat.
That hasn’t escaped the notice of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service and other agencies, said Undersecretary Mark Eddy at a Club 20 meeting in Vail last weekend.
Eddy said forest health initiatives are being examined for categorical exclusion from endangered species act provisions, but he acknowledged the issue is complex and will require more study.
Slowing down the gondola
A federal judge’s ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency must designate habitat for the Canada Lynx already is sinking its claws into at least one local project – the proposed gondola from Avon to Beaver Creek.
“It’s going to delay publication of the environmental assessment,” said Snow Ranger Dave Ozawa of the Forest Service. “We don’t know what the summer construction plans are and how this (ruling) might affect it.”
Some projects in Summit County, such as snowmaking expansion at ski areas also could be affected, said Acting District Ranger Mike Liu.
“It’ll definitely slow things down,” he said. “Summit County has a lot of potential (lynx) habitat.”
Any change in land use in potential lynx habitat, be it land trades, building wind generators on Vail Mountain, building a gondola from Avon to Beaver Creek or thinning trees to slow pine beetles and forest fires, could be subject to a more formal, time-consuming round of reviews.
– Cliff Thompson
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or email@example.com.