EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. - Already the nation's largest ski area, Vail may soon be even bigger. In September, the U.S. Forest Service approved a 4,000-acre expansion that has been in the works for a decade. If the decision holds and Eagle County approves the expansion, the resort will clear over 800 acres of new runs, an increase of nearly 25 percent.
But what is good
for business may be bad for the lynx, a wild cat that has all but
disappeared from Colorado. The reasons for the lynx's decline
aren't know for certain, though environmentalists suspect trapping
(prior to the 1971 ban) and development in the state's
high-elevation forests. The federal government has dragged its
heels on protecting the cat, they say, while second homes and ski
runs eat away its remaining habitat.
humans so important that we can wipe out species just to make
ourselves comfortable, just so we can have more ski terrain, just
so we have more housing for millionaires?" asks Rocky Smith of the
Colorado Environmental Coalition.
The lynx, a
large-pawed cousin of the bobcat, is faring better in the Northern
Rockies, where large tracts of high-elevation forests remain in
Montana's Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness. But in
Colorado, no one has seen a lynx since 1974.
elusive cat may remain in the state, however. In 1989, wildlife
researchers verified lynx paw prints in an area known as "Super
Bowl," which is part of the proposed Vail expansion. That and other
evidence of lynx in the area causes some to believe that it may
represent the best hope for the cat in the
The Forest Service contends it's wrong to
conclude that ski area development will be harmful to lynx. Far
more effort has gone into searching for the cats around Vail than
anyplace else in the state, says the agency's Loren Kroenke. "I
don't think we know enough to say this is the hot spot of lynx
"It's OK lynx habitat," says Vail
planner Tom Allender. "There is no great lynx habitat in Colorado."
But even Vail's wildlife consultant, Rick Thompson, acknowledges
the cat is a mystery. "We don't know squat about lynx in Colorado,"
he wrote in a letter to the Forest Service last
That's the problem, says Jasper Carlton,
director of the Boulder-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation. One of
the few things we know for sure is that the lynx is disappearing,
he says, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hesitates to
protect the cat because of pressure from politicians and the timber
and recreation industries.
In 1995, Carlton
petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the cat as
an endangered species. Against the advice of biologists, the agency
rejected the petition, arguing that lynx populations were healthy
in the northern U.S. (HCN, 6/12/95). Carlton took the agency to
court over the issue, and won. In May, the agency ruled that the
cat was "warranted" for listing; then it held off, saying funds
were low and other species in more immediate
"They say you can't show any imminent
threats to the lynx," says Carlton. "I say you can't show me any
lynx. So every car that goes by is a threat to the lynx, every
single action is a threat."
Carlton joined Defenders of Wildlife and 15 other groups in a
lawsuit aimed at forcing Fish and Wildlife to give the lynx
emergency listing, protecting it under the Endangered Species Act.
In October, he joined environmental groups in appealing the Forest
Service's approval of the Vail
Keeping the feds
Meanwhile, the state of Colorado hopes to
keep the lynx off the endangered species list by importing lynx
from Canada and protecting cat habitat.
there are lynx remaining in Colorado. We just don't believe
there're enough of them to have a sufficient sustaining
population," says John Seidel, who is writing the state's
conservation plan. Leaving the cat in the hands of the state "is
better for us, and it's better for the lynx," he says. "This is a
native species, and it's a state's-rights issue."
Seidel hopes to finish the plan by Dec. 1, then
spend the winter sweeping Colorado's high-elevation conifer forests
for tracks of snowshoe hares - the lynx's main food. Areas with
lots of hares will be the best spots to transplant lynx, he says.
He hopes that the first 100 lynx can be transplanted from Alaska or
Canada in the winter of 1998-99.
these radio-collared transplants, says state biologist Gene Byrne,
"maybe we can do some scientific, sound evaluation of lynx at this
habitat and how we would best protect lynx in this state."
But Jasper Carlton sees the state's plan as a
fraud. If state and federal agencies are serious about saving the
lynx, they'll have to set aside large areas of land, he says; the
Forest Service's approval of the Vail ski expansion is the latest
indication that they don't have the gumption to do
Asks Carlton, "If we can't defend the lynx,
this fascinating wild cat that doesn't eat children, that doesn't
eat cattle, that doesn't predate on sheep - if we can't defend and
bring back a magnificent wild cat like the lynx, can we bring
Allen Best writes from
Eagle County, Colorado.
* Contact acting district ranger Loren
Kroenke with the U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO
* Contact Eagle County
commissioners, Eagle County Building, P.O. Box 850, Eagle, CO 81631
* Contact Tom Allender with Vail
Associates, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658 (970/476-5601);
* Contact Jasper Carlton with the Biodiversity
Legal Foundation, P.O. Box 18327, Boulder, CO