Looking for the missing lynx

  • COUSINS: A stuffed lynx, left, and bobcat

    Bill Andree photo

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.

"Are we 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.

The 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 state.

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 activity."

"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 year.

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 danger.

"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."

In September, 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 expansion.

Keeping the feds out

Meanwhile, the state of Colorado hopes to keep the lynx off the endangered species list by importing lynx from Canada and protecting cat habitat.

"We think 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.

By studying 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 so.

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 anything back?"

Allen Best writes from Eagle County, Colorado.

You can ...

* Contact acting district ranger Loren Kroenke with the U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO 81645 (970/827-5715);

* Contact Eagle County commissioners, Eagle County Building, P.O. Box 850, Eagle, CO 81631 (970/328-8605);

* Contact Tom Allender with Vail Associates, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658 (970/476-5601); or

* Contact Jasper Carlton with the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, P.O. Box 18327, Boulder, CO 80308-1327.

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