GPS units enables researchers to track wild cats minute by minute, showing where they hunt, sleep and response to recreational use
By Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY — Forest Service biologists say the results of a lynx study at Vail Pass will help them design a management plan for the area that protects important lynx habitat and while ensuring continued recreational access to the area.
The study began last winter as a pilot project, as the agency, working in partnership with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, captured three adult females and fitted them GPS beacons. The work cost about $200,000.
“There are more lynx in the area than we thought,” said Forest Service biologist Liz Roberts. The plan is to expand the scope of the work this coming winter. Roberts hopes to raise about $400,000, which would also pay for some snowshoe hare studies. Roberts said Vail Resorts has already agreed to help fund the study.
The GPS data from the collars shows the movement of the cats, minute by minute, all winter and spring. That will allow biologists to create a detailed map of where the lynx go to hunt, where they sleep and where they move during the day, when snowmobiles are buzzing through the area. Roberts said the information would also help show how lynx are responding to the forest changes wrought by pine beetles.
The collars are programmed to open up and fall off about a month from now, when the biologists will retrieve them to get the full data. Roberts said the study is unique because of the level of detailed information it will provide. The results of the pilot project are due in early fall, she added.
A second component of the study involved recreational users of the area, who were asked to voluntarily carry GPS devices for a day. That information will also be used to generate maps of recreational activity in the area. Putting the maps of lynx movements side by side with the recreational-use maps could help show how lynx respond to the presence of skiers and snowmobiles.
Roberts said recreational users responded well to the request for help. People who participated were subsequently sent a map showing where and how far they traveled. Nova Guides, a snowmobile company operating in the area, was also cooperative, allowing its guests to participate in the tracking program.
Tracing the maps on to aerial photos of the area will show where pockets of habitats are in relation to trails. Knowing that, the Forest Service could potentially revamp the management of the heavily used Vail Pass area to avoid the areas most important for lynx.
“It’s amazing what we can do with this information,” Roberts said. “We should be able to see how these animals are responding to the loss of lodgepole pines,” she said.
She added that several local ski areas are on the periphery of the study area, so the data may be useful as the agency looks at future proposals for new lifts or trails.
Even before the Colorado Division of Wildlife started its reintroduction program in 1999, biologists agreed that the Vail Pass corridor would be critical for connecting larger blocks of good lynx habitat to the north and south.
The far-ranging carnivores easily travel several hundred miles in just a few days in search of food and shelter. Maintaining those connections are crucial for the long-term prospects of a self-sustaining lynx population in the state. Just a few months ago, a lynx that was originally trapped in Canada and released in the San Juans trekked several thousand miles back to its home territory.
Filed under: biodiversity, endangered species, Environment, recreation, Summit County Colorado, Summit County news, US Forest Service, White River National Forest, wildlife Tagged: | lynx, lynx research, Summit County, Summit County Colorado, Summit County News, U.S. Forest Service, Vail Pass