Colorado ski industry wary of wolverine

 

By David Frey, 12-28-10

In October 1998, the Two Elk ski lodge atop the Vail ski area erupted in flames so big witnesses said it looked like a volcano.

In the highly-publicized eco-terrorist attack, the secretive Earth Liberation Front struck against Vail Associates for its plan to expand the ski area into what was considered prime habitat for the Canada lynx, an elusive wildcat that state officials were considering reintroducing to Colorado.

“Putting profits before Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated,” the arsonists warned in an e-mail message.

It was the most visible impact the planned lynx reintroduction had on Colorado ski areas, but it wasn’t the only one. Ski resorts, once seen as green business in a state that loves its outdoor recreation, contended with environmentalists’ lawsuits and government protections. Everything from ski area expansions to housing developments became viewed with an eye on how the moves would affect lynx habitat.

Now that a sustaining lynx population has been established in Colorado, state wildlife officials are turning their attention to restoring the wolverine.

But ski areas are voicing their concerns about what a wolverine reintroduction program could mean to future ski operations, and even existing ones.

“We think the timing is very, very wrong,” Colorado Ski Country USA president Melanie Mills told the Denver Post.

Returning the wolverine, though, may be a very different story than the tale of the lynx. Biologists weren’t sure if Colorado could sustain the lynx. With the wolverine, they say, Colorado has the largest habitat anywhere in the lower 48.

And while the lynx prefers forested areas that also make good places for ski areas, wolverines prefer a narrower, steeper band of alpine and sub-alpine terrain. Ski areas butt up against less than 1 percent of the mapped wolverine habitat in the state.

That’s not much as far as the wolverine is concerned, but it’s understandable why resort operators would worry, admitted Theo Stein, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

“What they found after the lynx was reintroduced was, they had trouble getting approval for things they could do before, because of the reintroduction of the lynx,” he said.

“Our best opportunity is to smooth the way for things to happen before these animals hit the ground,” Stein said. “That’s what we’re committed to trying to do. If we can’t, we may take a pass.”

The DOW is hoping to work with the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to create a reintroduction plan that would return the wolverine without impacting ski areas.

“I don’t blame (ski areas) for worrying, but they do not need to worry,” Dave Gaillard, regional representative for Defenders of Wildlife, told the Post. “There’s a lot more habitat out there for wolverines than what ski areas currently occupy.”

State officials are considering importing 30 to 40 wolverines starting in 2012. Meanwhile, wolverines soon may be listed under the Endangered Species Act after federal biologists determined they are in danger of extinction.

It’s a similar scenario to the one presented when wildlife officials returned the lynx to Colorado. What began as a state plan in 1999 became complicated in 2000 when the federal government listed the lynx as endangered.

Vail spent years wrestling with federal officials and fighting environmentalists’ lawsuits before the Forest Service agreed to allow its expansion.

Other resorts faced similar battles, from Telluride, which faced environmentalists’ opposition over expansion plans, to Silverton, where a tiny no-frills ski area faced strict reviews over its incursion into lynx habitat, to Keystone, where biologists worried a luxury home development could stand in the way of a key lynx corridor.

Those battles seem to lie at the heart of the ski industry’s hesitancy about reintroducing the wolverine.

“Let’s be thoughtful about this and make sure there are budget dollars available for a decade to collect the kind of data on the animal you need before you put (wolverines) on the ground,” Mills told the Post. “That way you don’t put land users in the position of having restrictions put on land use that are not based on science,” she said.

While officials plan, wolverines are moving in. M56 strolled from Wyoming to Colorado in the spring of 2009, the first wolverine in Colorado in 90 years, and has been calling the mountains around the town of Fairplay home. A radio transmitter around his neck sends reports suggesting he’s getting by just fine.

But maybe he’s wondering when he’ll get some company.

Originally posted at NewWest.net

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Follow David Frey at www.davidmfrey.com and on Twitter.

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