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
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.
The Breckenridge Town Council will get an update on Peak 6 plans at a January 25 work session.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with administering the Endangered Species Act (lynx are listed as threatened), has not yet made any formal comments on the proposal, but the agency will review the Forest Service environmental studies once they are released.
But both agencies have helped shaped the plan with informal input, and Colorado Division of Wildlife data on lynx movement, foraging and denning in the Tenmile Range will play a key role in helping biologists what impacts the plan might have and how best to avoid or mitigate negative effects on the rare wild cats.
The state wildlife agency most likely will once again offer formal comments when the draft environmental analysis is released sometime this year, perhaps as early as this spring.
Forest Service studies
The Forest Service has also been conducting its own lynx studies the past few years, tracking the animals in the forest between Copper Mountain and Vail to learn how they use the habitat. One study involves snares and motion sensor cameras, while another effort is targeted at lynx in the Vail Pass area. In that study, now in it second year, Forest Service biologists captured lynx that were living in the Vail Pass area and used collars with transmitters to closely track their movements to learn how the cats respond to human activity in the area. Click here to read about the Vail Pass studies.
Since the lynx is listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service will eventually have a formal role in the process. Grand Junction-based USFWS biologist Kurt Broderdorp said the first step is for the Forest Service to release a biological assessment. Based on the legal status of lynx, that document should offer a determination of whether the project is “likely” or “not likely” to adversely affect lynx.
The biological assessment may — or may not — be released at the same time as the draft environmental study.
“We may not see the B.A. for quite a while. Our role right now is consultation with a small “c” to show how to make the project better for fish and wildlife,” Broderdorp said.
Once the Forest Service has decided on a preferred alternative, that becomes the proposed action for purposes of formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act. The biological assessment is related to that preferred alternative. Subsequently, the process takes on the flavor of a Kabuki-like ritual, with each step pre-determined by the key federal laws: The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Formal NEPA process
The role of the Fish and Wildlife Service is to determine whether the Forest Service provided enough up-to-date biological information to support the adverse effect determination in the biological assessment. Broderdorp said his agency has to make sure that the Forest Service decision is legally and biologically defensible.
“We haven’t received anything yet. There have been some pretty sticky issues and we’ve had some very preliminary discussions with the Forest Service,” Broderdorp said, explaining that USFWS biologists have made some site visits to the Peak 6 area as part of the informal discussions. The original Peak 6 plan has already been tweaked in response to some of the early dialogue, he added.
But in order not to prejudice that process, Broderdorp said the Fish and Wildlife Service has not officially weighed in yet.
“We’ve purposely not offered any comments … We’ve never said a negative thing about Peak 6,” he said. “Do we have concerns? Yes, but we’ve not expressed those.”
Broderdorp went on to describe how the Forest Service and USFWS arrive at their conclusions. A project like Peak 6 is likely to measured against several yardsticks, including how it would affect individual animals living in the area. Secondly, the agencies use “Lynx Analysis Units” to determine how a proposal might affect the home range of an animal like lynx.
Those units might not overlap with the exact home range of a lynx, but it gives biologists a way to measure how much much habitat will be affected by a proposal — for example, to determine whether the tree-clearing for new Peak 6 ski trails will result in the loss of important lynx habitat.
Finally, the agencies look at how and whether a project will affect the species population as a whole.
There are other natural resource issues that will be discussed in the EIS for the Peak 6 project, but impacts to lynx will probably be one of the key factors in the final plan for the expansion.