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Evaluating all proposed actions

Allen Best

In March 2000, the U.S. Forest Service got a new baby, the Canada lynx. Life may never be the same in the household again.

Every proposed action on presumed lynx habitat in the National Forests in Colorado must be evaluated in terms of how it might affect lynx.

In theory, the Forest Service was already doing this. In practice, the Endangered Species Act prods a much closer evaluation.

At Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, snow-groomers cannot work at night, to avoid disturbing lynx. Permits for guides and outfitters are being processed more slowly, as the consequences of their actions to lynx are more carefully analyzed.

Prescribed burns are being delayed because of what is essentially a more complicated paperwork scheme – in violation of plain common sense, according to some sources.

Underpasses for lynx are part of the plan for a new and improved Interstate 70. One would be east of the Continental Divide, but 14 would be on the Western Slope. Lynx habitat is believed to be at 8,000 feet above sea level – and higher.

Lynx also are being considered in Summit County, where several owners of private land surrounded by the White River National Forest want to build houses. By law, the Forest Service is required to provide access, and it intends to. But if roads that were formerly used by snowmobiles or cross country skiers are now plowed, where will those snowmobilers and skiers go?

After all, it could matter to lynx, some people say.

Trails created by cars, snowmobiles or snowshoes provide a hardened surface amidst powder snow that can be used by coyotes, mountain lions or bobcats, they say. Normally, because of their outsized, broad feet, the lynx can get about in soft snow better than these other predators and hence can nab unsuspecting snowshoe hares, the staple of a lynx’s diet. Hence, to protect the niche occupied by lynx, the Forest Service is to allow no net increase in trails and roads.

Returning to the case of the inholders, does that mean their roads should have enough snow for skiers and snowmobiles – so they don’t have to create new trails? That is among the sticky issues confronting foresters as they configure travel management plans for the national forest.

Some dismiss this as a speculative theory. Others argue that it is good, solid reasoning. At present, however, it’s the “best science available,” and hence what drives habitat protection on federal lands. And that’s partly the point of the state’s reintroduction program, to actually be able to test the theories.

Meanwhile, biologists are getting a clearer idea of what lynx need to survive in Colorado. In fact, there have been no major surprises. True, one lynx scampered off to Nebraska, and another set out across the San Luis Valley, both treeless places that biologists had predicted they would avoid. For the most part, however, lynx have behaved much as predicted.

– Allen Best


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