Lynx issues shaping local forest management
SUMMIT COUNTY – With Canada lynx returning to the White River National Forest in ever-greater numbers, local land managers continue to grapple with the question of how best to ensure that there is adequate habitat for the big-pawed, tuft-eared cats in Summit County’s forests.As part of that effort, the Forest Service is in the middle of a study measuring the overall recreation capacity of the Vail Pass recreation area, where up to 25,000 people hike, snowshoe, ski and snowmobile. Vail Pass is part of a crucial north-south corridor for lynx. The far-ranging predators can easily wander several hundred miles from their home territory as they look for new areas of good habitat.”It’s right in the middle of some important lynx habitat,” Forest Service planner Dave VanNorman said, describing the patchy spruce and fir forest around the pass that provides cover and prime areas to hunt for snowshoe hares and other small mammals.Since it’s a critical movement corridor for lynx, the Forest Service needs to understand how human use in the area may affect the cats. The capacity study was also spurred in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with the management of animals listed under the Endangered Species Act.
This winter, the Forest Service is trying to determine how much use the Vail Pass area gets at night, VanNorman said, explaining that rangers will install automated counters in a few locations around the pass to get some solid numbers. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to see those numbers as part of its evaluation of Forest Service management plans for the Vail Pass area, VanNorman said.The recreation capacity study at the pass will help provide some valuable information on how best to manage the area for lynx, but VanNorman said the data will also be used by rangers trying to protect and enhance the quality of the recreational experience at the popular winter play area. Jones Gulch corridor still at issueMeanwhile, on the eastern side of Summit County, the Forest Service may eventually take another look at the Jones Gulch area, where a forested wildlife movement corridor may have been inaccurately mapped during the White River forest plan revision.In various documents related to the forest plan, federal and state wildlife biologists identified Jones Gulch as a critical lynx path through heavily developed Summit County. Tracking data from the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s lynx program shows that some lynx have used Jones Gulch during the past few years, although biologists are still not sure exactly how important the drainage east of Keystone Ski Area actually is.
“My understanding is the 5.5 (forested landscape linkage designation) was supposed to be centered on the creek,” said Rick Thompson, a Boulder-based biologist who has consulted for Vail Resorts and Intrawest on wildlife issues related to resort development and operation.Calling it an “error,” Thompson said the line ended up being drawn farther to the east, in some cases above treeline high on the flanks of Independence Mountain. “There certainly is a question as to why the line is drawn where it is,” said White River National Forest ecologist Keith Gietzentanner. “I don’t have all the background. I’ve not been able to contact all the people involved (in the mapping),” Gietzentanner said, explaining that there’s been a significant personnel changeover at the forest and district level since the plan was completed in 2002.”I’ve not been able to track down all the reasoning. Strictly from a wildlife standpoint, the line would have been somewhere else. I was really surprised when I first realized where it was. Was this truly a mistake, or something else?” Gietzentanner said, adding that the political and social considerations likely played a role in where the line was placed.Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said it’s possible the agency may revisit the location of the Jones Gulch corridor, especially in the context of studying any site-specific proposals in and around that area. Newton also said there is a “stand-still” agreeement with Keystone regarding development in the potentially sensitive wildlife area.Part of that re-evaluation would be to try and determine if there was a good reason for locating the corridor to the east of the Jones Gulch drainage, Newton said.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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