Feds revise critical habitat proposal for lynx

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Proposed critical habitat for lynx in the northern Rockies, as mapped by the USFWS.

Colorado once again left out of critical habitat zone

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Working under a court order, federal biologists have finished a revision of a critical habitat designation for threatened lynx — but once again, Colorado was left out of the equation.

The latest critical habitat designation, subject to a 90-day comment period, would cover about  41,547 square miles within the boundaries of five critical habitat units in the states of Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.

Colorado wasn’t included because the agency doesn’t believe that the state’s population is essential to the long-term conservation of the species, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Zelenak.

“We looked at the historical record and the biological history of lynx in Colorado and it’s just not clear that Colorado ever supported a persistent population over time … We recognize the potential for lynx in the southern Rockies … but our approach has been to look at those places with persistent populations over time. We want to feel fairly certain that an area has the physical attributes needed to support lynx,” Zelenak said. Continue reading

Colorado biologists planning statewide lynx assessment

Habitat occupancy assessment to help monitor status of population

A lynx in the wilds of Colorado. Photo courtesy Tanya Shenk, Colorado Division of Wildlife.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists say they’re close to finalizing a plan to monitor the state’s lynx population by assessing habitat occupancy. If successful, the strategy would enable researchers to determine whether the population of endangered wild cats is sustaining itself over time.

The habitat occupancy model was tested in a pilot program in core lynx habitat in the San Juans a couple of years ago, showing that about 50 to 60 percent of the available lynx habitat is occupied. Now the biologists are trying to figure out if they can use the same method to keep tabs on lynx across the entire state.

Lynx have been listed as a threatened species since 2000, with a population in New Mexico currently under consideration for listing as a candidate species. Colorado launched a restoration program in 1999, transplanting more than 200 lynx from Canada and Alaska to the San Juans.

The reintroduction effort was declared a success about two years ago, after 10 years of intensive monitoring, with on-the ground visits to lynx dens, as well as tracking via airplanes and satellites. The tracking shows that the population has spread northward, with resident, breeding lynx up through the Collegiate Range and even into Summit County, with pockets of populations north of I-70.

In a draft report on the pilot study, biologists said it’s not feasible to accurately estimate population numbers, but assessing habitat use and occupancy can help determine whether the population is stable, growing or declining — and might also show trends in habitat use, for example in response to changing forest conditions. Colorado Parks and Wildlife lynx research is online here. Continue reading

Critics plan appeal of Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion

DU Law Clinic may help with administrative or legal challenge

The Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge will very likely be appealed and a legal challenge is not out of the question. Click on the map a couple of times to see the full-size version.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service approval of the Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge Ski Area probably won’t go unchallenged. Longtime critics of the project scrutinizing the the final environmental study say they are likely to appeal several elements of the decision, including, fundamentally, whether the expansion meets the stated purpose and need.

Vail Resorts claimed from the start that the new lifts and terrain will ease congestion at Breckenridge by spreading out skiers on peak visitation days, but at least some of the data in the Final Environmental Impact Statement seem to contradict that conclusion.

Skiers and snowboarders will still have to use the busiest lifts out of the Peak 8 base area to reach the new terrain. At one point in the document the Forest Service appears to flat-out acknowledge that the expansion won’t significantly shorten lift wait times on Peak 7 and Peak 8.

All the documents for the Peak 6 project are at this Forest Service website. Extensive background stories about Peak 6 are online at this Summit Voice page. Some of the ongoing community concerns and criticisms of the Forest Service decision are spelled out on the Save Peak 6 Facebook page.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Colorado: Highway lynx crossings documented

Study tracks north-south movement with more than 10 years of data

“Due to the poor precision of telemetry location estimates and the amount of time elapsed between locations, the straight line movement paths depicted in this analysis DO NOT represent exact or even approximate locations where lynx crossed I-70.” ~ Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Continue reading

Judge halts lodgepole thinning in Idaho lynx habitat

Canada lynx. PHOTO COURTESY USFWS.

Court rules that the Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by changing maps and approving logging

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Lynx in the northern Rockies got a boost from a federal court this week, as U.S. District Court Candy Dale halted a large lodgepole pine thinning project in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, on the western border of Yellowstone National Park.

Judge Dale ruled that the Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by changing forest maps without adequate environmental reviews. The agency will have to go back to the drawing board and do more studies to disclose how the thinning will affect endangered lynx. Continue reading

Wildlife agencies still mum on Peak 6 lynx impacts

Release of draft environmental study will elicit formal comments and consultations among state, federal agencies; Breckenridge Town Council to get Peak 6 update this week

A Canada lynx in Colorado. Photo by Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Tanya Shenk.

SUMMIT COUNTY — Even though concerns about threatened lynx have played a large part in determining the latest version of a plan to expand lift-served skiing at Breckenridge, state and federal wildlife agencies so far have officially been mum on the proposal.

The last formal comment filed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife was in response to the initial scoping notice in 2008, when state wildlife officials encouraged the U.S. Forest Service to complete a full-scale environmental impact statement, the most rigorous level of analysis prescribed under federal environmental laws. The EIS will include several options, including the so-called “no-action” alternative, and disclose the comparative impacts of each choice. Continue reading

Lynx may yet get critical habitat protection in Colorado

A Canada lynx kitten in Colorado, photographed by Tanya Shenk, lead biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife's lynx recovery program.

Judge orders U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise a 2009 critical habitat designation that didn’t include any federal lands in the Southern Rockies

*Links to extensive Summit Voice coverage of Colorado lynx issues here


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By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it excluded Colorado from a critical habitat designation for threatened Canada Lynx.

U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider its 2009 decision and propose a revised habitat designation. The court decision came after a number of environmental groups sued the agency over the decision.

Conservation groups are hopeful the revised designation will include lands in Colorado and the rest of the Southern Rockies.

“The decision takes away all their reasons for not designating critical habitat in Colorado,” said Paige Bonaker, staff biologist with the Center for Native Ecosystems.

The coalition includes the Sierra Club, Center for Native Ecosystems, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Native Ecosystems Council. The groups argued that the Southern Rockies and portions of the Northern Rockies in Montana and Idaho that were excluded provide vital high-elevation habitat for lynx.

Proving that a federal agency has made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision can be difficult, given that courts tend to give the government a lot of latitude, but in this case, the judge seemed to say it was a no-brainer, based on the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

“The lynx in the Southern Rockies are thriving, but we have to protect the places they live if they are going to continue to do so,” said Bonaker. “Historically, lynx populations existed in Colorado, and the reintroduction program in the Southern Rockies has been very successful. Lynx in the Southern Rockies are important to the survival of the species in the United States.” Continue reading

Colorado cuts lynx recovery budget

Canada lynx kittens in Maine

Canada lynx kittens in Maine. PHOTO COURTESY THE U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE.

State shifting resources away from intensive on-the-ground monitoring; total cost of program so far is about $3.7 million, mostly funded by donations and GOCO dollars

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — After 12 years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife is transitioning away from intensive statewide on-the-ground lynx monitoring. Instead, the wildlife agency will move toward statistical modeling of lynx populations, and the use of remote sensing equipment to help track the rare cats.

At the peak of the program, the division was spending about $400,000 per year on lynx recovery. last year, the budget for the program dropped by about $150,000 to $200,000.
Altogether, the program has cost about $3.7 million between 1998 and 2009, according to Rick Kahn, the agency’s terrestrial section manager.

The biggest source of funding, about $1.9 million, came from Great Outdoors Colorado.
About $1.2 million came via donations, including from the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation and from Vail Associates. The rest came from the division’s license fee fund, Kahn said. Learn how the money was spent after the break … Continue reading

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