Summit County: U.S. Forest Service hits pause button on several projects to assess the cumulative impacts to lynx

Finding room to roam for Colorado’s iconic wild cats

The Forest Service is trying to assess cumulative impacts to lynx in Summit County and developing tools for a long-term conservation strategy.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —The U.S. Forest Service has hit the pause button on a number of projects in Summit County while biologists assess how new trails, ski area improvements and a proposed new backcountry hut  affect threatened lynx.

Wildlife experts say that, along with a resident population of four lynx, they’re seeing more and more evidence that Summit County is an important crossroads for the wild cats as they move across the state and they want better information on cumulative impacts in all parts of the county south of I-70. And emerging new data may also help the agency shape a pro-active long-term conservation strategy.

“Projects that are already approved are not affected,” said acting Dillon District Ranger  Peech Keller, explaining that the cumulative effects analysis is for all projects that are in the planning phase. That includes proposed travel management implementation in the Golden Horseshoe, a proposed backcountry ski hut on Baldy Mountain, a proposal for trail and facility upgrades at Keystone Mountain, a proposed motorized trail on Tenderfoot Mountain, as well as permits for outfitters and guides.

“Essentially, every NEPA project is free to move forward except for the lynx assessment part,” she said, adding that she hopes the assessment will be done sometime in June.

“The information may help us design our projects and ameliorate effects … and help determine design criteria. It may help us look at what parameters of wildlife habitat we should be looking at when we analyze a project;  maybe they’re different from what we’re doing now,’ she said.

“The timing was right,” said White River National Forest biologist Wendy McGuire. “We found ourselves facing a lot of activity in Summit County and had never stepped back to do a lynx assessment,” McGuire said. “We don’t have the whole picture if we do it piecemeal. That was the major thing that was bothering biologists; not having a clear overall picture of trying to manage lynx in Summit County with everything that’s going on.”

McGuire said the assessment will include information from a two-year Forest Service study at Vail Pass (and a similar study from the San Juans) that looked at how lynx interact with recreation. Other data comes from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife lynx tracking data base.

All that information will be blended together with vegetation maps, land activity data, timber harvests, recent land-use decisions, outfitter and guide use and decisions that are pending right now to try and develop a comprehensive picture, McGuire said.

Eventually, she hopes to produce maps that show which areas are really important for lynx conservation,  which would help guide future reviews and permitting, perhaps steering some uses toward less critical areas while trying to avoid impacts in the most sensitive habitat and movement corridors.

“There’s a lot of pressure in Summit County for everything,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kurt Broderdorp, outlining the multitude of various projects he’s been  reviewing and outlining other pressures on wildlife habitat,including logging, residential development, increased demand for backcountry experiences, the proposed Breckenridge ski area expansion on Peak 6 and other projects in the works.

“All these things are occurring in the same space, and something’s got to give,” Broderdorp said. “I think they (the Forest Service) came to the realization that they need to take a step back and take a broader look at what needs to be done.

“And it’s not just lynx,” he continued. “All forest carnivores are being affected. The reality of it is, we presumably have an expanding population of lynx, and once that space in southern Colorado is filled up, those lynx are going to have to go somewhere. Some have popped over the Tenmile Range, just east of Breckenridge, and we also have some unpublished data that they’re heading across southern Summit County, toward Loveland Pass and crossing I-70,” he continued. “The fact of the matter is, when they’re moving north, they’re going to come through Summit County.”

Broderdorp and McGuire emphasized that the agencies hope to partner with the state and with the county when they get a little bit more of the information compiled in usable form. Potentially, the county’s open space department could also have a role in planning for a local long-term lynx conservation strategy, he said.

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