Conservation groups accuse Forest Service of favoring energy, timber, ski areas over lynx habitat

Conservation groups Tuesday asked the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider management guidelines for the Canada lynx, a tuft-eared, bobcat-like wildcat reintroduced in Colorado in the 1990s and the object of much controversy in the ensuing decade and a half.

The subject of radical environmental protests on its behalf and an arson attack at Vail ski area in 1998, the endangered lynx then benefited from efforts partially funded by the ski industry aimed at restoring the cat’s numbers via transplants from Canada to Colorado’s southwestern San Juan Mountains.

Now lynx are regularly spotted as far afield as Summit County, closer to the state’s Front Range, and have been run over and killed on what some wildlife officials refer to as the “Berlin Wall” for local fauna, the main east-west thoroughfare of Interstate 70.

In an appeal of a recent U.S. Forest Service decision to amend land management plans for seven national forests in Colorado and one in southern Wyoming, conservation groups argue the changes would weaken lynx protections in favor of potentially harmful human activities such as timber harvesting, oil and gas development, road upgrades and snowpack compaction due to winter recreation.

That’s important because other predators such as coyotes that compete with the lynx for its favorite food, snowshoe hares, can travel the forest more easily on snow that’s been packed out by skiers or snowmobilers. Lynx have wide, padded paws that give them an advantage in deep, untrammeled snow.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year declined to designate critical lynx habitat in the Southern Rockies because federal officials felt it was unclear whether the animals can establish a self-sustaining population in the region. In the catch-22 world of federal bureaucracy, that means lynx must first prove they can survive before being granted more protections in order to do just that.

“Without this vital habitat protection, lynx habitat in the Southern Rockies is in dire need of stronger management direction on national forest lands,” said Paige Bonaker, staff biologist at the Center for Native Ecosystems, one of the groups that filed the appeal. “By strengthening the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment, the Forest Service will be doing its part to give lynx in the Southern Rockies the protection they need.”

Joined by Colorado Wild, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Native Ecosystems asked the chief of the Forest Service to rescind the amendment and substitute one that strengthens guidelines for the recovery of lynx in the Southern Rockies. The appeal also argues for forest plan amendments in New Mexico and Utah where lynx are believed to be making a comeback as well.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.