A village and a lynx

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Colorado Parks and Wildlife Canada lynx
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Canada lynx

An analysis of the project’s potential impact

While the Village at Wolf Creek land exchange decision announced two weeks ago is, in itself, contentious, another aspect of the land exchange has also been garnering attention for years — its affect on the area’s lynx population.

The lynx has been an environmental sticking point many times over the years, both with the village project and others, such as a late 1990’s ski area expansion.

On Nov. 20, Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) Supervisor Dan Dallas announced his decision regarding the land swap, giving a tentative green light to a land swap between the Rio Grande National Forest and Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture (LMJV) which would provide the needed land and access to accommodate the proposed and controversial Village at Wolf Creek.

The land swap, which is Alternative 2 in the draft record of decision (RoD) released Nov. 20, would convey approximately 177 acres of privately held land to the RGNF in exchange for approximately 205 acres of national forest system land managed by the RGNF.

Dallas considered three alternatives in his decision:

• Alternative 1: No action.

• Alternative 2: Land exchange (the proposed action).

• Alternative 3: ANILCA (Alaska national Interest Lands Conservation Act), which is to provide adequate access to nonfederally owned land to secure to the owner the reasonable use and enjoyment thereof.

“After a thorough review of the final environmental impact statement and public comments, I have decided to approve Alternative 2, the land exchange,” said Dallas. “I believe this is the best decision for the land and the public while providing the access to which the proponent is legally entitled.”

Also released with the draft RoD was the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the proposal, which spans 809 pages including the appendices.

The FEIS looked at numerous “Issues and Indicators”: surface water, water quality and floodplains; groundwater; geology, minerals and soils; water rights and use; climate and air quality; vegetation resources; wetlands and waters of the U.S.; fish and macroinvertebrates; wildlife; visual resources; recreation; transportation and access; social and economic resources; and cultural resources.

Too, the document lists several issues not analyzed in detail: health and human safety at a high-altitude resort; wildfire hazard and mitigation for development; validity of 1987 land exchange; and the financial viability of development at Wolf Creek.

Included within the wildlife analysis is an analysis of the project’s potential impact on the lynx, with the FEIS stating that the lynx analysis area “is sufficiently inclusive to capture the most far-reaching potential direct, indirect, and reasonably certain effects associated with the Action Alternatives.”

The following is not intended to promote any point of view regarding the lynx, but to provide an overview of the analysis included in the FEIS. Information is taken from the FEIS and is not exhaustive.

A threatened species

The Canada lynx was listed as threatened in the contiguous U.S. in the spring of 2000, and while no habitats in Colorado are designated as critical habitats for the Canada lynx, there is a population of the species in the southern Rocky Mountains.

Lynx are specialized predators that, in Colorado, primarily live in “mature and late-successional spruce-fir dominated coniferous forests and stands of dense lodgepole pine.”

While the size of home ranges for lynx varies depending upon a number of variables, the FEIS estimates that the 502-acre project site represents anywhere between 0.3 percent and 3 percent of a lynx’s home range.

The last specimens of native lynx taken in the southern Rockies were from the late 1960s and early 1970s. No additional native lynx have been documented since one was illegally trapped in 1973, and the then-Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) considered the population to be extirpated.

Reintroduced

An effort to reintroduce the species took place in the late 1990s.

The FEIS states, “In an attempt to reestablish a viable population, the CDOW released 218 lynx in the San Juan Mountains beginning in 1999. All releases have been in the San Juan Core Area (SJCA) in southwestern Colorado. As of May 25, 2009 (the most recent Lynx Update prior to the final BA for the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project), the CDOW was tracking 42 of the 103 reintroduced lynx still possibly alive in the Southern Rockies Ecosystem. Additional animals are present on the landscape, but it has become nearly impossible to determine the extent of the lynx population in Colorado due to reproduction, failed collars, and/or they are outside of the research area. There are 115 known mortalities and 62 missing animals. CDOW biologists estimate the number of lynx in Colorado is holding steady at about 150, with most in the southern mountains.”

Between 2003 and 2010, a total of at least 141 kittens were born, including a Colorado-born female that produced kittens in 2006.

“In 2010, the CDOW announced that the lynx reintroduction project had successfully accomplished its goal of establishing a breeding population in the Southern Rockies and all benchmarks for successful lynx reintroduction,” the FEIS states.

The FEIS later continues, “Estimated rates and trends in survival and recruitment seen over the first decade after reintroduction began, if sustained over the coming decades, should be sufficient to maintain a lynx population of some reasonable size in Colorado in at least the core reintroduction area without the need for additional augmentation.”

Lynx movement

The FEIS also discusses, over several pages, a variety of factors relating to the movement of lynx through the habitats, including through linkage areas (where movement between habitat areas takes place), the core area where the lynx were released (the SJCA) and traffic on highways in the lynx analysis area.

According to the FEIS, is it very important for the health of the lynx populations to maintain connectivity between habitats in the southern Rocky Mountains: “The importance of landscape linkages and dispersal corridors to the landscape ecology of rare forest carnivores include (1) facilitating daily and seasonal intra- and inter-home range movements, (2) facilitating mating and genetic interchange, (3) allowing dispersal from population centers and colonization of otherwise suitable, vacant habitat, and (4) allowing populations to respond to natural and human-caused environmental changes and catastrophes.”

Relating more specifically to the lynx population, the FEIS notes, “Because of the patchy, discontinuous distribution of lynx habitat in the Southern Rockies Ecosystem, maintaining landscape-level habitat connectivity may be paramount to maintaining a viable population. Landscape linkages must be available to allow lynx movements between adjacent mountain ranges.”

And while the analysis notes that lynx will and do cross “broad alpine zones, broad open valley bottoms, highways, or other landscape features,” those movements are not preferred “because it predisposes animals to increased risk factors (e.g., predation, poaching, highway mortality) in habitats that do not support their primary suite of prey species.”

The FEIS continues, “Any continuously forested corridor between mountain ranges supporting lynx habitat that is relatively free of human development has the potential to be an important landscape linkage. Large tracts of continuous forest are the most effective for lynx travel and dispersal.”

Other factors

The FEIS also lists several other factors affecting lynx in the analysis area:

• The use and maintenance of U.S. 160 through the Wolf Creek Pass lynx linkage. The FEIS states that the highway currently adversely affects the lynx because of habitat loss and fragmentation, impairs connectivity and increases the probability of roadkill.

• Ongoing operations at Wolf Creek Ski Area.

• Big Reservoir timber salvage. The salvage project is taking place 3 miles north of the project site and involves the removal of approximately 500 standing dead, weakened, and blown-down trees from a 32.4-acre area within and around the Big Meadows Campground.

• Table Salvage Timber Sale. Located approximately 7 miles north of the project site, the Table Salvage Timber Sale will convert 245 acres of designated lynx winter foraging habitat into temporarily unsuitable habitat.

• Pass Creek Yurt. The Pass Creek Yurt is an existing lodging facility for non-motorized winter recreation located approximately 5.5 miles up Pass Creek Road.

• Wolf Creek Pass Weather Station. An automated weather station is maintained by CDOT on the top of Wolf Creek Pass.

• Spruce beetle effects on lynx habitat. The spruce beetle infestations in the San Juan Mountains and upper Rio Grande Basin, including in and around the project site, are at epidemic levels.

Forests in the vicinity of the project area are approximately 90 percent spruce and 10 percent fir, meaning a majority of local forest stands could be affected.

“Within spruce-dominated forests, spruce beetle mortality will likely alter structural forest stand conditions, which may influence lynx prey species abundance and lynx habitat use,” the FEIS states.

• West Fork Fire Complex. The West Fork Fire Complex started by lightning in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado on June 5, 2013. The fire started on the San Juan National Forest, west of the Continental Divide, but eventually developed into three separate fires, two of which (the West Fork and Papoose Fires) burned primarily on the RGNF, east of the Divide. The fire burned a total of 109,615 acres on both the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests.

Three of the four action area lynx analysis units were burned to some extent, but the majority of the Wolf Creek Pass lynx linkage remains suitable.

• Climate Change. The FEIS states, “Climate change is reducing the snow pack in western North American mountains and is shifting the distribution of boreal forest northward and up mountain slopes. As a result, climate change is altering the geographic location and distribution of potential lynx habitat, threatening the long-term viability of lynx in the contiguous United States.”

This section discusses three scenarios for climate change and their potential affects on the lynx.