Finding room for lynx to roam in the wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming may not be a huge issue. But in crowded Colorado, researchers are finding that intensive recreational use — especially snowmobiling — is crowding the rare cats out of some critical areas.
At issue is the management of the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area (VPWRA), a 50,000-acre pocket of rolling, forested terrain along Interstate 70, between Copper Mountain and Vail. Several commercial snowmobile tour and rental operators have asked the U.S. Forest Service for permission to increase trips in the area. Before issuing any new permits, the agency decided to take a hard look at the overall capacity of the area. As part of that study, White River National Forest biologist Liz Roberts wrote a formal biological assessment, trying to measure and quantify the impacts of recreation to the wildlife habitat in the area. Long story short, Roberts concluded that human activity in the area is “adversely affecting” the cats.
The VPWRA is no doubt an important recreational amenity. But it’s also one of just a few north-south movement corridors where lynx can safely travel between big chunks of good habitat. If lynx are to re-establish populations across the state, they probably need the Vail Pass area.
The question is if we humans can share the area with the cats. Roberts said the Forest Service has no intention of shutting down recreation on Vail Pass based on the study. But she also said she doubts if it’s a good idea to increase use. Likewise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist charged with reviewing any Forest Service plans that could affect lynx also said the impacts at Vail Pass probably won’t jeopardize the species across its entire range in the lower 48 states.
But one of the commercial snowmobile outfitters who operates at Vail Pass said he thinks there could — and should — be more recreational activity in the area. He said he’s never seen a lynx in 25 years of riding his snow machines at the pass.
That may be because lynx probably hear the snowmobiles from miles away and do everything they can to get out of the way. Either way, the Forest Service is soon going to face some hard choices at the pass.
Roberts, the Forest Service biologist, said her study was one of the first to take a scientific look at the nexus of recreation and lynx habitat, and that the information will be useful in any case.
The U.S. Forest Service biological assessment is posted as as pdf here.
The 2006-2007 Colorado Division of Wildlife annual report on its lynx reintroduction program is online here. The state report also includes some outstanding color maps showing lynx movements from the release area in the San Juans throughout Colorado and into neighboring states. Some of the cats have roamed as far as Iowa and even Nevada.