Studies show lynx inhabiting Independence Pass area
Newly released radio tracking data for lynx show nearly one-third of the threatened felines made their way to and through the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest surrounding Eagle County. That information, released this week by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, used airplane and satellite to track the radio-collared lynx. Forty-three of the animals were tracked into and through the forest, which also includes Vail and Beaver Creek mountains, and several may have established residence as breeding pairs near Independence Pass between Leadville and Aspen. The information on lynx locations comes a week after David Tenney, the deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, removed regulations protecting lynx on the forest. Lynx remain a threatened species under U.S. Fish and Wildlife protection.Tenney had said in published reports there was no evidence of lynx using the area. But environmentalists like Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild said the move was “pure politics.”Exceeding expectationsOver the last six years the Colorado Division of Wildlife has transplanted 166 lynx from Canada and elsewhere into southwestern Colorado’s 410,000-acre Weminuche Wilderness. More than 100 of those lynx, all radio collared, have survived and have produced an additional 40 kittens, said Rick Kahn, who headed the lynx reintroduction effort. Some of those lynx have staked out the Independence Pass area and have reproduced, Kahn said.”We know there are lynx using the White River National Forest,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we get some breeding pairs on the White River.”After release, many of those lynx spread out across the state. One headed into Nebraska. Another appears to be headed back to British Columbia. Sixty-one of the original lynx died, with 105 alive, but the whereabouts of 20 of those survivors is unknown because their collars have stopped working, Kahn said. Seven were killed by motor vehicles – two on Vail Pass – while eight were shot, seven starved and four died of the bubonic plague. The remainder died of unknown causes, Kahn said. The Division of Wildlife will attempt to capture and collar the new lynx kittens as well as the adults whose collars have stopped working, he said.”We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “The level of reproduction exceeds where we thought it would be and the overall survival is pretty good.”Slowly moving northLynx, which are similar in appearance to a bobcat, weigh about 22 to 25 pounds and prey largely on snowshoe hares. Both inhabit the coniferous forests of Colorado’s High Country and because they both have oversize feet, thrive in deep snow.The heaviest concentration of lynx on the radio tracking collar is around Independence Pass area. The next busiest area is a corridor just south of Vail that includes Tennessee Pass, between Leadville and Silverthorne. Lynx also have been located in the Gore Range east and north of Vail.”Most of the animals are just passing through,” Kahn said. “There are probably a few resident animals along the southern boundary of the forest.”The majority of the dots on the map indicating lynx have occurred in the last couple of years, Kahn said. He said there is some duplication in locations between satellites, which track twice a week, and airplanes, which track regularly when weather permits. And U.S. Forest Service officials have had plenty of anecdotal evidence of lynx sightings from hikers, skiers and backcountry users.Few lynx have made it into the Flat Tops Wilderness, which makes up the western border of Eagle County, because of the mountain range’s distance from southwestern Colorado, and because of the barrier of Interstate 70, Kahn said.”It’s a barrier but it’s not impermeable,” he said. “It’s natural these things will slowly move north.”Environmental inputThe existence of lynx, or lack of them, was the deciding issue when Vail Resorts proposed building Blue Sky Basin. Lynx were last seen on Vail Mountain in 1973 and had lynx again been found in the area, which is considered the southern boundary of the cats’ habitat in the Rockies, it would have stalled the development. The Forest Service approved the 885-acre ski expansion in 1998. Environmental protests were followed in October 1998 by the arson fire at Two Elk Restaurant and other facilities. No arrests have been made, although the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the fires that did $12 million in damage. Proposed expansion of ski and other facilities at nearby Copper Mountain could be slowed if lynx are found in the area.And environmental groups will be appealing Tenney’s decision to remove some protections from the lynx once the policy becomes an amendment to the White River Forest plan adopted just two years ago to guide management of a forest that is the busiest in the United States.
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