Return of the Lynx

Article by Allen Best

Wildlife – May 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

LYNX are running free in Colorado once again.

The first lynx to be released — in what has become a controversial reintroduction plan — scrambled across the snow south of Creede on February 3rd.

Yet by all admissions, little is known about lynx in Colorado.

“Any assumptions you make regarding lynx habitat in Colorado is pure speculation,” wrote state wildlife biologist Tom Beck in an internal memo.

“We don’t know squat about the lynx,” wrote another biologist.

“This is a big-risk undertaking,’ says Jasper Carlton of the reintroduction.

Carlton, executive director of the Boulder-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, in 1994 petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to afford the lynx protection in the 16 states where it once was found. Only in three of those states does it continue to be common.

That government agency refused, however, overriding the advice of its own field biologists, ruling that the species remained common in Alaska and Canada.

But Carlton sued and won. The ripple is that by July, the lynx will be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That law is sometimes called the pit bull of environmental laws.

Already much has been lost, says Carlton. “If the lynx had been listed, I would have guaranteed Vail’s Category III would have received a jeopardy decision,” he says. That would have reigned in the expansion radically, with far fewer trees cut, the runs narrower, and lifts ending short of the Battle Mountain ridgeline.

Rick Thompson, the well-respected wildlife consultant for Vail Associates, disagrees, however. Vail’s designs assumed that the lynx would be listed, he maintains. That assumption caused deletion of Commando and West Super Bowls, and caused trails, although no narrower, to be braided by islands of trees to provide more cover for lynx and other small critters — which is yet another assumption about what lynx want.

Activists were not persuaded. Last October 19, arsonists set fires atop Vail Mountain, and news organizations received untraceable e-mail messages from the “Earth Liberation Front,” taking responsibility for the fires “on behalf of the lynx.”

Although investigators have not publicly narrowed their suspects to environmental activists, a grand jury has subpoenaed several members of the Colorado-based Ancient Force Rescue.

But regardless of who set the fires, and why, the phantom lynx danced onto center stage, getting even international attention.

Reintroduction of the black-footed ferret into Colorado has drawn almost no reporters. The still-unexplained dwindling numbers of boreal toads, with habitat that encompasses some of the same mountain terrain as the lynx, has drawn only meager regional interest. But the lynx reintroduction on the edge of the San Juans during February drew TV cameras and torts.

Though arson and expansion have put Vail Mountain at the center of lynx controversies, soon lynx could also return or — take your pick — be augmented to the Vail area. Next year, lynx may be transplanted to the upper Frying Pan River (over the hill from Leadville) almost within sight of Vail Mountain. In Canada, lynx have been known to travel up to 700 miles. Lynx released in the San Juans covered 50 miles in little more than a week.

IMMINENT LISTING OF the lynx as a federally protected species is causing other ripples across the Colorado mountains. Driving those ripples will be the need to connect blocks of habitat. The Forest Service will have to cease paying lip service to protection of lynx and start making hard choices.

If you’re a National Forest user of any sort, expect some changes. If not, Jasper Carlton’s Biodiversity Legal Foundation will be in court, firing a fusillade of lawsuits. His lawsuits have had a way of hitting their mark.

Lynx was an issue in the erection of the Loveland Ski Area lift up to the Continental Divide. Cresting the ridge above the Eisenhower Tunnel, the lift blocks the connecting corridor for lynx.

Ed Ryberg, winter recreation sports administrator for the Forest Service, says the lynx listing will have significant repercussions to ski areas, which inhabit the same 8,000 to 12,000-foot elevation span as the lynx.

Highway costs will rise for mountain roads, too. Highway 40 across Berthoud Pass is being widened, for example, and the needs of lynx are dictating two underpasses similar to what is found along I-70 between Eagle and Gypsum. Tunnels are unlikely to work, and overpasses are more expensive.

Lynx needs will also be at issue in the redesign of I-70 to allow more traffic. Current plans call for 38 miles of modification between Denver and Vail, including three new truck-climbing lanes. Penciled in for the long term is a yet-undefined rapid transit system.

The Forest Service has also postponed timber sales after failing to calculate impact to lynx.

Everything from backcountry ski huts to snowmobile trails will be sent through the coarse screen of lynx review.

But livestock grazers have relatively little to fear, says Gary Patton, a field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There won’t be a big problem if “appropriate grazing standards on the National Forest and BLM lands are religiously adhered to,” he says. Enforcement has been lacking, he suggests.

But Carlton believes livestock grazers and the Forest Service should be concerned.

“This is a perpetuation of the Big Lie, that we can have our cake and eat it too, that we can continue to satisfy every economic interest in Colorado and still bring back the species,” he says. Lynx listing, he adds, won’t bankrupt anybody. But “everybody has to give up a little.”

Habitat protection measures, says Joan Friedlander, the Forest Service’s endangered species program manager for the Rocky Mountain Region, cannot be enacted overnight. “It’s a fairly long process. People expect quick fixes.”

Fire as a way of restoring habitat has largely been overlooked, she suggests.

BIOLOGICALLY, THERE’S an argument for wolf reintroduction to help the lynx. Coyotes have flourished, perhaps eating snowshoe hare. They are now king of the predators in Colorado. Those hunters will become among the hunted if the wolf returns, just as they have in Yellowstone.

Or so goes that theory. Don’t worry about investing in wolf-sighting binoculars, though. The state wildlife biologists insist they have no real interest. “We have a lot on our plate already, and adding wolves to the equation would be very difficult,” says state wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury.

The agency’s Bruce Gill declares an ethical obligation to restore species, but in addition to the charismatic predators, he also talks about such species as the Eastern hog-nosed skunk.

Carlton says first things first. “If you can’t bring back the lynx and wolverine in Colorado, you’d better stop worrying about the wolf.”

But the lynx, despite its finicky eating habits, remains a part of the ecosystem that will be much easier to restore than others, says Gene Byrne, a state wildlife biologist.

It’s much easier than getting black-footed ferrets to survive on prairie dogs, both of them on private land. Or than trying to tear out all of the dams on the Colorado River to restore squaw fish and humpback chubs.

State wildlife officer Bill Andree of Edwards, one of the early proponents of lynx reintroduction, thinks there are few reasons to restore the wolf, many reasons to spend time elsewhere.

“We don’t need to study about why there are no wolves here,” he says.

Moreover, he believes that the wolf will return to Colorado on its own or, perhaps even sooner, by private citizens.

But there are smaller critters that represent bigger issues, he says. For example, boreal toads have been declining, part of an amphibian die-off that scientists have been unable to explain. The boreal toad habitat overlaps broadly with that of lynx habitat.

“Boreal toads are a bigger issue than wolves by far,” says Andree. “The little fishes on the South Platte are a bigger issue than the wolves or grizzly bears in Colorado. In Colorado, everything that potentially affects water supplies, which little fishes do, will involve almost every person — because we all depend upon water supply. But it’s not a sexy issue.”

Allen Best writes for the Vail Daily News and is trying to sell a book about Interstate 70 and its effects on Colorado. This is the conclusion of a two-part article; the first part appeared in our April edition.

First Installment.