Will listing hurt the Colorado lynx?

Broad federal plan may leave Southern Rockies population out in the cold

 

In the mid-'90s, John Mumma felt something was missing from the snow-socked alpine forests of Colorado. There were marmots and pikas, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. But it had been a long time since anyone had verified the presence of one of Colorado's native high-elevation predators, the Canada lynx.

"The Division of Wildlife had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine if they were still in Colorado," recalls Mumma, former director of the division. "The last confirmed pelts were in the Vail area, but it had been quite some time since the last one had been seen."

Mumma knew the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was likely to list the cat under the Endangered Species Act. But, he says, "I always thought we needed to be proactive and get them re-established out in the state, rather than wait until they were listed and spend our time chasing a ghost lynx."

So he assembled a group of Colorado biologists from the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Division of Wildlife to look at the status of the lynx and its habitat. Reintroduction, they concluded, was a good idea. In 1999 and 2000, the division transplanted 96 lynx from Canada into southwestern Colorado's San Juan National Forest (HCN, 5/10/99: Lynx reintroduction links unexpected allies).

The program had a rocky start, with several lynx starving to death. But changes in release practices dramatically improved the animals' survival, and scientists are hopeful that the cat has regained a foothold in the state.

In March 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lynx as a threatened species. But instead of breaking out the champagne and celebrating, Colorado biologists and conservationists warned that the victory might backfire. They believed the federal government wrote the listing in a way that would do little for the lynx, especially the population in Colorado.

An isolated cat

To understand how this could happen, one needs to understand the geography of the lynx world.

Lynx range from Alaska south to Canada and into the snowy northern reaches of the United States. Most of the U.S. population connects with Canada and probably grows and shrinks as Canadian populations fluctuate. But the lynx in the Southern Rockies are isolated.

"There are huge gaps in suitable habitat in Wyoming, with over 100 miles of things like the Red Desert," says Gary Patton, former lynx biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and member of John Mumma's lynx assessment team. "So, very few would stumble across to the Southern Rockies during dispersal" from the north.

The isolation of the Southern Rockies, says Patton, means Colorado must have had its own self-sustaining population.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife agreed. It wanted the Southern Rockies lynx to be listed as a "distinct population segment," a group whose members are isolated from the rest of the species but remain "significant" to the species as a whole, requiring a management plan separate from those of other populations.

But when the Fish and Wildlife Service released its final listing rule, it chose a unilateral listing across the United States. Peripheral lynx populations in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Southern Rockies are "not necessary to support the continued long-term existence" of the lynx in the Lower 48, the rule said.

The service said there was no way to determine whether lynx in peripheral areas were "merely dispersing animals from northern populations" or permanent, self-sustaining residents.

Patton, who had campaigned within the service for a Southern Rockies distinct population segment, left Fish and Wildlife after the listing.

Environmental groups say the agency's decision was politically motivated by heavy pressure from the ski industry.

While the ski areas have supported lynx reintroduction * Vail donated $200,000 to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, jump-starting the reintroduction program in 1999, and today is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to optimize lynx habitat in its new Blue Sky Basin - the industry has also asked for flexibility in managing ski areas for lynx habitat.

"Ski areas in Colorado are in an arms race," says Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Ski Corporation. In the last decade, ski areas have been forced to compete for limited skier numbers, and any roadblock to expansions or improvements could threaten their ability to compete. So "the lynx issue is a hot button (not only) for ecological reasons, but also because the Endangered Species Act is one of the biggest tools to block development," says Schendler.

The end of reintroductions?

With the current broad-stroke approach to lynx protection, Mumma says, future reintroductions in Colorado could be "much more difficult, and maybe impossible." The number of animals available for relocation from Canada is limited, and Fish and Wildlife could decide the Colorado population isn't a national priority and send available cats elsewhere.

Environmental groups that are challenging the listing decision in court have similar fears.

"Lumping them all together could lead to regional extinctions," says David Gaillard with the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Mont. Managers won't be able to stop developments that devastate regional lynx populations if they can't show those developments will also have an impact on lynx throughout the species' range, he says.

Gaillard also fears the listing will be short-lived. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself described the listing as a "very narrow rule" that would allow it to "go with delisting relatively quickly." The agency has staked its recovery effort on upcoming amendments to 29 national forest plans and four BLM units where lynx are thought to live. Once these are in place, Gaillard says, the agency could argue the lynx no longer needs to be listed.

That would be okay, says service biologist Kurt Broderdorp, because the amendments will address the major risks to the animal. They might direct managers to preserve habitat for the snowshoe hare, the lynx's primary food source, and to restore habitat connectivity across highways or through ski areas.

"I don't think we're giving up on Colorado lynx," says Broderdorp.

Broderdorp also sees some logic to focusing protection efforts on the Northern Rockies. "There are big national parks there, where you already have a high level of protection," he says. "I think the effort is centered there because it was the last and final stronghold for the lynx. I don't think it will necessarily end there, though."

So far, the listing hasn't hampered Colorado's monitoring program. Over half the released lynx have survived, better than average for a transplanted predator. But Division of Wildlife managers are waiting to see if the released lynx have had kittens before considering more releases.

"There has always been a question mark of whether there ever was a viable population of lynx in Colorado," says Tanya Shenk, head lynx researcher for the division. "We know they can survive here, but they might not be able to reproduce here."

Shenk thinks the cats have bred. If they have, she says, there may be additional releases, provided the state has the means and the federal government approves. But even without another reintroduction, Shenk thinks lynx may have a future in the Southern Rockies. "There's still a chance that these animals could pull it off."

Erika Trautman, who wrote this story as an HCN intern, now works at the Colorado Statesman in Denver.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • The Predator Conservation Alliance, 406/587-3389;
  • The Colorado Division of Wildlife 303/297-1192;
  • Greg Warren, National Forest Service, Southern Rockies, 303/275-5054
  • Marcia Hogan, National Forest Service, Northern Rockies 406/329-3300, www.fs.fed.us/r1/planning/lynx.html.