Lynx, recreation pose conflict on Vail Pass
December 18, 2008
VAIL, Colo. ” Several rare lynx that have set up home ranges between Copper Mountain and Vail Pass could trigger a showdown between government agencies.
The cats, listed as a threatened animal on the Endangered Species List, have been living in the area for more than a year, according to wildlife biologists. If they stay in the area, it would be the first time the cats have established territories in this part of the White River National Forest.
But their presence sets up a potential conflict, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews plans for recreation at the Vail Pass winter-play area, administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
“Two or three lynx were hanging out around Copper last winter, and this winter again,” said Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kurt Broderdorp. “But the amount of recreation going on in that part of the forest is clear off the chart.”
The Colorado Division of Wildlife transplanted more than 200 cats from Canada and Alaska to the San Juan mountains during the past decade.
Many of them have stayed in the southwestern part of the state, but smaller satellite populations have sprouted around Independence Pass, near Aspen, and in a few other areas. Biologists have long said that the spread of the wide-ranging cats to prime habitat between Summit County and Vail was inevitable.
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Vail Pass has been identified as a crucial wildlife corridor and as prime habitat ever since Vail Resorts was in the early stages of planning what was then called the Category III expansion, now known as Blue Sky Basin.
A 2007 study by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that intense recreational use at Vail Pass is already crowding the cats out of the area. The agency launched the study because commercial snowmobile outfitters want to increase permitted use of the area. They believe the area can sustain more use on the existing trail system without negative impacts to wildlife.
But the results of the study by Forest Service biologist Liz Roberts suggest that the capacity of the area to provide for both recreation and wildlife habitat already has been exceeded.
Based on the Forest Service research, the Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to issue a formal biological opinion on the Vail Pass management plan. The review has been in the pipeline for months but now will be delayed again.
Instead of looking specifically at Vail Pass, the consultation between the two agencies will cover the entire White River National Forest travel-management plan, Broderdorp said. His agency will submit comments on the travel plan before the Jan. 6 deadline.
“We have to make sure any action by a federal agency does not jeopardize the species,” Broderdorp said in a previous interview.
If it does, the agencies would be spurred to develop “reasonable and prudent” management alternatives for the area. But Broderdorp and Roberts both said it’s unlikely that human activity at Vail Pass could threaten existence of the species across the lower 48 states, the trigger required for the jeopardy call.
When the Forest Service study was conducted, no lynx lived in the area permanently.
The nearest resident population was in the Collegiate Range, agency biologists said. As the Colorado lynx population expands, the cats likely will start using more habitat niches like Vail Pass, researchers predicted.
Spruce-fir forest is already the most important type of habitat for lynx. With lodgepoles in the surrounding area dying from the pine-beetle infestation, areas like Vail Pass could become even more critical for lynx, according to the study.
But not everyone who uses Vail Pass is sure that cats will thrive in the area. A commercial snowmobile operator said he’s never seen a lynx at the pass in 25 years of riding the area.
“We just don’t have the habitat here. There’s no rabbits,” commercial snowmobile operator Steve Pittel said in an interview last year, referring to snowshoe hares, the primary food source for lynx. “If they can prove to me lynx are here, I’ll give the cats a little leeway.”
Pittel is seeking a new permit to run more commercial trips in the area, so he would be affected if the Forest Service changes the way it runs Vail Pass.
“I think the area can accommodate more people on the same trail system,” Pittel said. “Vail Pass is a great recreational resource. It’s perfect terrain and easily accessible, right alongside the interstate. I think it would be foolish for them to try and limit the number of people that go out there.”
Forest Service officials said there is no intent to shut down Vail Pass. The study was driven by the recognition that it is an important recreation area. But based on existing impacts to lynx, increasing use in the area is a not good idea if the area is to be protected for lynx movements.
In the bigger picture, the Vail Pass area does still contain numerous pockets of good habitat for foraging and security and even some for denning. These areas are near the fringes of the recreation area.
The challenge is the high density of trails and play areas at the center of the area.
The goal is to preserve lynx movement through the area during the day.
The fact that lynx are living in the area speaks to the quality of the habitat, Broderdorp explained.
“Recreation,” he said, “does have its limits.”