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Biodiversity: Saving lynx in Summit County

New lynx assessment could affect forest management and recreation planning; ski ares excluded from conservation zone

Mapping a lynx conservation strategy in Summit County. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife map shows habitat use by 118 lynx, with yellow representing low use, orange showing moderate use and blue showing high use.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — U.S. Forest Service biologists have identified a lynx conservation zone in southern Summit County where they hope to preserve and enhance as much lynx habitat as possible. The mapping was done after an assessment concluded that cumulative effects in the area may be “approaching or exceeding impact thresholds.”

Lynx tracking by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists shows that Summit County is a critical area for lynx dispersing north from core habitat areas in the eastern San Juans. That trend could increase, as spruce beetles have devastated large swaths of favored lynx habitat in the southwestern part of the state.

Additionally, Summit County has several resident lynx. Denning females with kittens have been documented, so protecting movement areas and improving habitat could ensure the persistence of those lynx, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

“Summit County is right in the middle of it all … it’s pretty compelling. We have a lot of data to work with and it was time to pull it together, given Peak 6, and knowing all the other projects that were coming up,” said Dillon District Forest Service biologist Ashley Nettles.

“So based on all this data … we have established a lynx corridor in this area … based on all these maps and where we know they’re moving through. In the corridor, we  can hopefully guide some management decisions and say, this is what we’d like to see … we’d like to maybe point certain activities away from this corridor and direct them to other areas,” Nettles said.

The conservation area extends from the south and west of Copper Mountain to  the south of Breckenridge Ski area, and wrapping to the northeast, stopping short of Keystone. A narrow finger runs north along the west flank of the Tenmile Range to encompass I-70 nearly all the way to Frisco.

“We didn’t look at anything north of I-70 because, based on the use data, we’re not seeing a lot heavy use activity,” Nettles said. ” but we did include some crossings as part of the assessment,” she said.

The area is divided into three priority zones, with the most critical area on the east side, where lynx are moving toward and across I-70. This area could initially be targeted for habitat improvements.

The conservation corridor connects and includes White River National Forest lands previously zoned as forested wildlife movement corridors. While the biologists considered the impacts of ski areas in their planning, the assessment doesn’t include conservation measures within the resort footprints, where past efforts at protecting patches of habitat have been unsuccessful. And a related study showed that lynx in the area appear to be going out of their way to avoid the developed resorts.

Protecting the habitat could mean tweaking some projects like forest health logging and land trades, as well as better management and potential limits on recreational activities seen as having a potential impact to lynx, said Ashley Nettles, a Forest Service biologist with the Dillon Ranger District.

Background

Forest Service biologists launched the assessment after acknowledging that none of the lynx analysis units in Summit County currently meet standards set forth in a regional lynx conservation plan (the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment), due to habitat fragmentation resulting from high levels of human use and development, including:

  • ski areas
  • community development
  • highways
  • timber harvest
  • agricultural areas

Additionally, recreational activities, including permitted special events and activities (races, guided tours, etc) are increasing in lynx habitat, “causing conflicts with lynx conservation and Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment requirements in southern Summit County.”

The Forest Service biologists based their assessment on Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, which requires federal agencies not only to avoid serious impacts to endangered and threatened species, but to carry out proactive conservation actions to help restore listed plants and animals to their native range.

Several months ago, the Dillon Ranger District slowed planning efforts on a number of projects, including a proposed new backcountry hut, in order to complete the lynx assessment. The district hopes to use the new information to help make projects more compatible with lynx conservation.

“White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams asked us to spell it out, so we can explain to the public why (we’re) going to pause these projects for a little while,” Nettles said, referring to the temporary summer planning hold on some aspects of certain projects.

“I’m not sure how this is going to affect projects in the works, I don’t think it’s going to be a show-stopper for anything,” she continued, adding that the assessment may help identify design criteria to help make ongoing projects more lynx-friendly.

“If we don’t provide some kind of movement corridor, they could get choked out of here really quickly with everything we have going on. And there’s just going to more, there’s new projects coming in the door every day,” she said.

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists leading the lynx restoration effort had previously warned of a potential genetic bottleneck in Summit County,” she explained.

“I don’t know if we need to push it to get to that point,” she said.

Here to stay?

Lynx conservation in Summit County is not just a hypothetical exercise anymore, Nettles emphasized. The rare wild cats are using nearly every corner of available habitat, from near the Eisenhower Tunnel to Vail Pass.

“They’ve been photographed all over. I have a picture from near Francie’s Cabin, there have tracks all over the Janet’s Cabin area, we’ve picked collars up off Baldy, there’s a photo of one in the Spruce Creek area,” she said.

Lynx have also been spotted around Montezuma, and photographed at Keystone and Breckenridge ski areas, as well as tracked all through the Vail Pass areas.

“Maybe their population is never going to be huge through here but we have to maintain what we have … we’ve also got to maintain a movement corridor for the population at a statewide level,” Nettles said, adding that there also has to be cooperation between adjacent national forests.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the White River National Forest is the most heavily visited forest in the country, primarily due to skiers and snowboarders visiting developed ski resorts.

But recreational use in general is increasing steadily in the already busy area, and Summit County is at the epicenter, leaving resource managers struggling to find the appropriate balance between meeting conservation obligations and responding to the demand for recreation.

“Even our low-use trails in Summit County would be considered high-use trails everywhere else. We don’t really have any low-use trails in Summit County, and there are recreation events nearly every weekend in the summer,” Nettles said, explaining that the district has been in a reactive mode when it comes to lynx impacts, constantly trying to catch up to its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re constantly mitigating, but there are two parts to the ESA, we’ve been real good about 7 (a) (2),” she said, referring to language in the act that requires mitigation or avoidance of impacts.

“But we should be carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species. We haven’t been doing a lot of that. We haven’t been very proactive, and we’re getting called on the carpet now. The  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, you’re not doing this,” she added, referring to another section of the ESA that requires agencies to carry out programs ” for the conservation of endangered species.”

“The lynx assessment is intended to be a guidance document for our rangers and forest leadership team officers … the next step is to take this out to our partners, the local towns, and really work with them on how we, as a community, can get on the same page with this,” she said.

“I think we’ll get a lot of support. It’s a very fair assessment. We know we’ve got animals moving through there … hopefully this will help maintain the habitat we have for our resident lynx but also provide and maintain a movement corridor for lynx moving through the southern part of the county, which we know they’re doing,” she said.

In addition to meeting legal requirements to protect endangered species, the conservation measures will also help preserve habitat and movement corridors for other animals.

“This is going to benefit so many species,” Nettles said, mentioning a lone male wolverine that’s been criss-crossing Summit County for the past several months, spending some time around Montezuma, among other places.

What to do?

So what will those conservation measures look like?

Nettles said the Forest Service is planning a “soft roll-out” of the assessment this month, meeting with district ranger Jan Cutts and winter sports ranger Shelly Grail to see how it might affect the ongoing analysis for a proposed new backcountry hut near Breckenridge.

Other measures could include limiting nighttime use, as well as restrictions on any new outfitter/guide permits off existing trails. There could be some efforts to redirect existing use by permitted operations when they come up for a new permit, she said.

“We might try and steer use away from the best habitat areas. Let’s say someone comes in to renew their permit; we might say, ‘let’s pull you off that trail that goes right through prime habitat and put you over here,'” she explained. “It’s going to take some compromise as permits come up.”

Mitigation around the big ski resorts could include restricting traffic to the side-country through national forest access points, at least from time to time, to prevent ongoing impacts that might displace lynx.

“It could be a tough pill to swallow for some proponents because we’ve always said yes to everything. Now we’re not necessarily going to say no, but at least we can say why and what we’re trying to do,” she said.

More long-term measures include ongoing forest restoration projects to try and create habitat that favors wildlife preservation. The assessment could also help determine how beetle-kill salvage logging projects proceed within the identified conservation zone, she said.

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