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Know the West

Will we ever know rec’s true impact on wildlife?

Scientists race to quantify winter recreation’s impact on Canada lynx, but technology outpaces them.

 

Nearly 20 years ago, Elizabeth Roberts woke early after a big snowstorm. She packed a thermos of green tea and caught the first chair at Vail Resort, a world-renowned ski area high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The lift ascended to Blue Sky Basin at the southern end of the ski area. But rather than pursue powder runs, Roberts trekked beyond the resort’s boundary on backcountry skis, weaving in and out of the spruce and fir, in search of wildlife tracks.

For roughly a decade, Roberts’ study of wildlife near the resort continued. As technology for backcountry travel advanced and the number of recreationists increased, so too did the ratio of humans to wildlife — so much so that by 2010, Roberts couldn’t find any wildlife tracks. Instead, she found heavily compacted snow and the traces of skiers and snowboarders who had ventured beyond the ski area’s bounds.

A Canada lynx at the Turquoise Lake study area in the White River National Forest, just west of Leadville, Colorado. The lynx was newly collared as part of the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Northern Rockies Lynx study.
Steven Sunday/Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Research Station

On a national scale, the number of people who ski outside the resort is projected to increase by as much as 106% by 2060. Those projections, paired with what they were seeing on the ground, concerned wildlife managers. As the first winter-sports wildlife biologist on the White River National Forest, Roberts sought to understand the impacts of recreation on the threatened Canada lynx — wild cats best known for their bobbed tails and wispy, antennae-like ear hairs. And she was largely starting from scratch: A decade ago, there was no relevant research available to guide management decisions.

“Colorado is very unique in the winter recreation world — our dispersed and developed recreation numbers are higher than anywhere.”

“We wanted to understand high-use winter recreation overlapping wildlife habitat,” Roberts said. “Colorado is very unique in the winter recreation world — our dispersed and developed recreation numbers are higher than anywhere.”

And so, in 2010, Roberts approached John Squires, research wildlife biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS), and the pair launched a collaborative project led by RMRS in coordination with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the University of Montana, along with the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, Vail and Copper Mountain ski resorts and others. Together, scientists studied how Canada lynx near Vail Pass and in the San Juan Mountains responded to pressure from diverse recreation.

The results of their study, published in June 2018, provided rare insight into ways winter recreationists and lynx use the landscape in both complementary and competing ways. But just as scientists began to understand the threshold of pressure that lynx could withstand, recreation technology changed and crowds grew, complicating many of the original questions researchers asked.

Red dots highlight the movements of collared Canada lynx. Lynx appear to avoid busy ski areas like Copper Mountain in Colorado (shown here), while still using the surrounding Vail Pass Winter Recreation area to the west, which allows fee-based dispersed winter recreation.
Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Research Station/Google Earth

TO UNDERSTAND HOW RECREATION influenced lynx behavior, Roberts and Squires and their team of researchers “collared” both subjects. The research team trekked deep into areas where lynx habitat abuts recreation hot spots. They set live traps, checking them every 24 hours, and, when the team captured a lynx, a veterinarian helped them slip a leather GPS collar onto it. Meanwhile, at gateway areas to the backcountry, scientists asked groups of skiers or snowmobilers to voluntarily carry a small GPS unit for the day and to drop it off before they headed home.

The research team followed the movement of 18 lynx and over 2,000 unique recreation tracks from backcountry skiers and snowmobilers. The study quantified nearly 35,000 miles of human movement. “These are some of the largest depictions of how recreationists move through landscapes ever documented,” Squires said.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/wildlife-hiking-trails-are-a-path-to-destruction-for-colorado-elk-vail]

The extensive data confirmed what many managers had assumed: Although there are opportunities for coexistence, research suggests there is a sensitive balance to strike when it comes to managing interactions. “Winter recreationists and lynx can occupy the same slope,” Squires said. “The two users could be compatible, but we need to be thoughtful about how they’re managed. And there is an upper threshold.”

This upper threshold is the crux of the research findings. When researchers talk about the threshold, they’re talking about a critical tipping point — when lynx go from being able to live alongside ever-growing numbers of skiers and snowmobilers to not being able to do so.

“Winter recreationists and lynx can occupy the same slope. The two users could be compatible, but we need to be thoughtful about how they’re managed.

According to Lucretia Olson of the RMRS research team, the pressure is most evident inside developed ski area boundaries, where activity is constant and corresponds to a clear reduction in lynx use. But outside ski resort bounds, defining the threshold is trickier because, fortunately, backcountry recreationists haven’t yet reached it. Instead, the data suggest that under the right management, lynx, skiers and snowmobilers are relatively compatible because of their distinct “habitat” preferences: Winter recreationists tend to prefer more open or gladed habitat, while Canada lynx tuck into the deep, dark forests preferred by their primary food source, snowshoe hares.

Where preferences are distinct, managers see an opportunity to support both recreationists and lynx. But where they overlap or activity increases, managers see us inching toward that tipping point where lynx will no longer inhabit an area. “If you change road density or canopy cover, you could change the mix of how lynx and recreationists use the landscape,” Squires said. “If you thin forests and turn them into glades, then recreationists are going to be more likely to snowmobile it and ski it, and that could impact lynx movements.”

Source: Rocky Mountain Research Station

MIDWAY THROUGH THE STUDY, the research team tromped through the woods near Lizard Head Pass, outside Telluride in southwest Colorado, checking traps for lynx. Deep in the spruce-fir, they came across what looked like a miniature snowmobile track whipping in and out between dense trees.

Jake Ivan, a 40-something wildlife researcher with Colorado’s wildlife agency, stopped and tried to process what he was seeing. He turned to Eric Newkirk, a wiry longtime lynx tech. “What the hell made that?” he recalled asking. Newkirk told him it was a snowbike, which still meant nothing to Ivan. Back at the bunkhouse, he Googled it.

Snowbikes — converted motocross bikes with a snowmobile-like track and a ski, rather than wheels — debuted at the 2017 Winter X-Games in Aspen, Colorado. The technology has since gained popularity. Not to be confused with human-powered “fat bikes,” snowbikes are perfect for steep slopes, deep snow and nimble movement through tight spaces — precisely the habitat critically important to lynx. 

“I still marvel at the seemingly endless ways people come up with to locomote over the snow,” Ivan said.

Just as the scientists were wrapping their heads around winter rec’s impacts on wildlife, technology had outpaced them, sending new hordes of recreationists deeper into previously difficult to reach slices of habitat.

“If we don’t find the balance, lynx will be pushed out of their home ranges,” Roberts said. “And as development, roads, and other factors also impact their habitat, they won’t have anywhere else to go.” 

Page Buono is a freelance writer based out of Durango, Colorado. She received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.