Summit County has long been considered a primary recreation destination in the winter, but the effects of these activities on lynx in the area have been a contentious issue. Now a study is looking more closely at recreation that occurs within lynx habitat.
The U.S. Forest Service, partnering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, began a study monitoring the effects of recreation and resource use of Canada lynx in the Vail Pass recreation area in the winter of 2009-2010 and will continue the study this season.
"The response of lynx to concentrated recreation and development is poorly understood," said Jake Ivan, a wildlife researcher involved in the study. "There is a need to study lynx habitat use and movement patterns, as well as snowshoe hare ecology, along the I-70 corridor, specifically within the vicinity of the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, Vail Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort."
Wildlife researchers have tracked lynx in the area with GPS and satellite collaring and have equipped people who recreate on snowmobiles, snowshoes or use local ski areas for skiing or snowboarding in the Copper Mountain and Vail Pass areas.
"It's a clever study," Ivan said. "We're capturing lynx and getting fixes on them frequently - about every 15 minutes or so. We have a pretty good handle on where they are."
The result of gathering data from recreators and collared lynx has provided Parks and Wildlife with location and time data. Though no formal analysis or final report of the data have been created, several points from lynx and recreators overlap, but are subject to differences in time.
"What we're ending up with is these two layers of data that show where the lynx are and at the same time where all the recreation is happening," Ivan said. "People ski on Copper Mountain during the day and it's probably that lynx just move through the area at night - that's only an example, but that's the type of hypothesis we're working with while conducting this study."
Currently researchers are in the field-work stage of the study gathering data.
"You can plot all of those points on a map, but it's really hard to just look at that and go 'this is exactly what's going on.' There are so many points and without actually conducting a formal analysis, it is difficult to say if lynx and recreators travel the same areas at the same time," Ivan said.
In Summit County, five lynx have been collared. Surprisingly the population of the animal in this area is very small - Ivan estimates five or six lynx.
"We've captured and collared about five lynx for the study that live in Summit County, if I had to estimate their population, I'd say that's probably about what's there," Ivan said. "Maybe there's an extra animal or two unaccounted for, but the population of resident lynx here is certainly less than 10."
The low number can be attributed to the lynx's large home ranges and their propensity for traveling long distances.
"They have pretty big home ranges, generally you don't find a ton of them in a small area. The size of Copper Mountain looks like a big ski area to us, but to a lynx that's just a portion of their usual home range," he said.
Even reproductive females, which tend to have the smallest homes ranges, often travel about 75 square kilometers while males travel well over 100 square kilometers, according to Ivan.
"We've noticed that in the summer if they're not tied to a den and they don't have kittens, lynx often pick up and go on these walk-abouts," Ivan said. "They might pick up and go from the south part of the state to the north part of state or wander over to Utah. They usually make their way back to their original home range but they can make some huge movements during the summer months."
The Canada lynx was designated a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in March 2000 shortly after Colorado Parks and Wildlife began a Canada lynx reintroduction program in 1999, where Canada lynx were reintroduced in the southwest portion of the state in the San Juan Mountain Range, according to Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator for Parks and Wildlife.
Odell has worked closely with the recreation study to develop a predictive map of Canada lynx habitat use in Colorado.
Since the start of the program, 218 captured lynx from Alaska, Manitoba, Quebec, British Colombia and the Yukon have been released. Wildlife researchers have documented survival, movement patterns, reproduction and broad-scale habitat use through aerial and satellite tracking.
From the reintroduction, lynx have been documented residing and moving up into northwest Colorado near Copper Mountain, Vail Pass and Climax Mine.
Quick access to Summit County from the Front Range makes the White River National Forest the most visited national forest in the nation, with over 9.6 million annual visits, mostly for recreation.
"Winter recreation may be something that is impacting lynx or it could be that they are indifferent to it or that it doesn't register to them at all," Odell said.
"The ski areas were one of those activities that the fish and wildlife service identified as okay, so if we're going to expand a ski area or build more runs we should look at how that impacts lynx. A short answer to that is no one knows," Odell said.