Vail Pass recreation blocks lynx |

Vail Pass recreation blocks lynx

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A snowmobiler guides his machine through the deep snows of Vail Pass. Commercial guides say they have never seen lynx in the area, and are concerned the Forest Service study could negatively impact their business. (Summit Daily file)

VAIL, Colo. ” Intense recreational use at Vail Pass is crowding threatened lynx in the area, U.S. Forest Service biologists determined in a recent study.

The biological assessment, launched in part because commercial snowmobile outfits want permission to increase the number of guided and unguided trips on the pass, is part of a long-running analysis for the 50,000-acre Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.

Some commercial snowmobile operators say they think the area can sustain more use on the existing trail system without negative impacts to wildlife.

Non-commercial use of the area is also growing steadily. The results of the study suggest that the capacity of the area to provide for recreation and wildlife habitat has already been exceeded.

“There’s a lot going on up there,” said White River National Forest biologist Liz Roberts. Vail Pass is an important trailhead for backcountry hut access, commercial and private snowmobiling and crosscountry skiing, she said.

The study was sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) about three weeks ago. As keeper of the endangered and threatened species list, the USFWS reviews land management decisions with the potential to affect listed species. The agency listed lynx as a threatened species in 2000.

“We have to make sure any action by a federal agency does not jeopardize the species,” said Kurt Broderdorp, the Grand Junction-based USFWS biologist who will review the Forest Service study.

A jeopardy call would spur the agencies 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 Vail Pass recreation area overlaps with an important lynx movement corridor, Roberts said. Lynx don’t live in the area permanently, but use it on a regular basis.

The nearest resident population is in the Collegiate Range, Roberts said. If the Colorado lynx population expands, the cats are likely to start using more habitat niches like Vail Pass to set up permanent home range areas, she said.

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, Roberts said.

“This area may be particularly important for lynx moving through central Colorado, based on information from the Colorado Division of Wildlife,” Broderdorp said.

The state wildlife agency is gathering data on lynx movements and habitat use from its re-introduction program. Radio-collared lynx have been located in and around the Vail Pass area on a regular basis, and two lynx have been killed trying to cross I-70 in that area.

Not everyone is sure that lynx visit Vail Pass.

“I’ve been riding up here for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a lynx,” said Nova Guides owner Steve Pittel. “There’s no stinking lynx; they don’t live here, they live in Canada. That’s why they’re Canada Lynx.”

“We just don’t have the habitat here. There’s no rabbits,” Pittel said, referring to snowshoe hares, primary food source for lynx. “If they can prove to me lynx are here, I’ll give the cats a little leeway.”

The longtime local is one of the people who could be affected if the Forest Service changes the way it runs Vail Pass. Pittel is seeking a new permit to run more commercial trips in the area.

“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. What are they trying to do, just keep it all for the tree huggers? To me, it’s something they just keep poking at us.”

Roberts, the USFS biologist, said there is no intent to shut down Vail Pass. The study was driven by the recognition that Vail Pass in an important recreation area, she said. But based on the impacts to lynx, Roberts isn’t sure that increasing use in the area is a 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, security, and even some for denning. These areas are out near the fringes of the recreation area.

The challenge is the high density of trails and play areas at the center of the area, Roberts said, adding that their goal is to preserve lynx movement through the area during the day.

“We have some really big barriers with the use up there. Lynx would not move across the area during the day,” Roberts said.

VAIL, Colo. ” A recent Forest Service study of the Vail Pass area stemmed from the 2000 listing of lynx as a threatened species. As a result of the listing, which was forced by a citizen lawsuit, the Forest Service and other federal agencies had to filter every permit and proposal through a coarse lynx “screen” to evaluate potential impacts.

Existing and and proposed activities at Vail Pass didn’t make the cut, thus requiring more in-depth study, said White River National Forest biologist Liz Roberts.

National Forest districts on either side of Vail Pass are asking for more permitted uses in the 50,000 playground, and non-permitted use by the general public is increasing as well, Roberts said.

Roberts said the study looked at factors like food availability, foraging habitat, security habitat and denning habitat before concluding that intense human activity in Vail Pass area is adversely affecting the wild cats.

Offering a bit more detail, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kurt Broderdorp explained that the federal agencies look at impacts on a scale of Lynx Analysis Units (LAUs).

“Is there so much human activity that it precludes lynx from feeding, breeding and sheltering in an LAU,” Broderdorp said, boiling down the essential question.

“This process will help inform the Forest Service how it manages these lands in the future,” Broderdorp said.

Roberts said the Vail Pass study was unique and generated a lot of valuable information because it was the first time biologists had a chance to study lynx in an area with such a high level of use.

“We have designated Vail Pass as an important carnivore movement corridor. We need to take steps to protect it,” Roberts said. The high number of trails in the area cuts off daytime areas where lynx can hide from foraging areas.

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