Federal wildlife agency says ski village won’t threaten lynx
December 23, 2005
DENVER – A development planned at the base of a remote ski area near the Continental Divide has cleared a key hurdle with a federal wildlife agency’s finding that the project won’t affect the overall survival of federally protected lynx.The opinion issued Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service affirms a preliminary report on the development planned at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwestern Colorado.The initial opinion released in October said 11 to 13 lynx could be hit and killed in the increased highway traffic expected over the next 40 years and that lynx numbers could be reduced by another 32 because of habitat loss.Federal biologists said the final report didn’t include the numbers because of confusion about the earlier estimates. They said based on traffic projections, only four of the potential deaths could be pinned on the development.The potential effects on lynx have helped fuel the opposition to The Village at Wolf Creek, proposed by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs. The report on lynx is among the information the U.S. Forest Service needs for a final decision on a road proposed across national forest land to the nearly 300-acres owned by the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture.The final environmental impact statement on the road could be issued as early as January.”The most important element in this decision, other than its positive findings, is that it is one more large step forward in the development of The Village at Wolf Creek and it opens the door to the U.S. Forest Service’s forthcoming decision approving access roads for The Village at Wolf Creek,” said Bob Honts, president and chief executive of the company building the village.The land and surrounding Rio Grande National Forest link sites in the San Juan Mountains considered to be some of the best lynx habitat in the state, according to Fish and Wildlife. Federal biologists acknowledge the sites are also part of the core area of Colorado’s lynx restoration program.”I think it’s hard for anybody to reasonably argue that it doesn’t have a major effect” on the state program, said Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, an environmental group that has sued to stop the development.The Northwest and Maine in November were deemed important recovery areas for lynx by the Fish and Wildlife, while Colorado wasn’t included in areas critical to the cat’s future. Federal biologists said the ski village won’t jeopardize the overall population of lynx in the lower 48 states.”However, there’s going to be some adverse effects to lynx in a localized area,” said Susan Linner, supervisor of Fish and Wildlife’s field office in Colorado.The agency recommended that the developers assemble a panel of experts, subject to review by the government, to reduce the danger to lynx.The Colorado Division of Wildlife’s efforts to restore the cat to its southernmost historic turf have fared well after a rocky start in 1999. The state has released some 200 lynx, mostly from Canada. About 100 lynx kittens have been born in Colorado.Trapping, poisoning and development eradicated the state’s native lynx by the early 1970s.Wildlife Division spokesman Tim Holeman said the agency hasn’t reviewed the final lynx report.”We don’t anticipate this will dramatically change the direction,” Holeman said.McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications, wants to build 222,100 square feet of commercial space and hotels and homes for up to 10,500 people at about 10,000 feet. Supporters, including area businesses, see it as a big economic boost for an area that’s suffered economically.Critics, including the Pitcher family, which has operated the Wolf Creek ski area for nearly three decades on forest land, argue the development will damage wetlands, create unmanageable traffic problems and strain area social and government services.The Pitchers, once partners in the venture, have teamed up with environmentalists in lawsuits challenging building permits for the ski village. They claim McCombs, who unsuccessfully lobbied for approval of an access road in unrelated federal legislation, has used his political clout to pressure government agencies.Colorado Wild is enmeshed in a legal battle with the Forest Service for release of records regarding the proposed development.