Editor’s Note: The famed Breckenridge Ski Resort is planning an expansion that has Colorado residents worried. A proposal to incorporate an area called Peak 6 threatens wildlife habitat, an ecologically valuable watershed, and spruce and fir hundreds of years old. The proposed expansion would include a six-person, detachable lift and 450 acres of terrain.
The first draft of an environmental impact statement (EIS) was released June 10 by the Forest Service for 45 days of public comment. Janice Kurbjun has been reporting on various environmental aspects of the Brekenridge proposal. The iconic species in the area is the endangered lynx.
I’ve never seen one, but I’ve skied near the habitat of lynx: there by the alpine chair at Copper Mountain, east of Denver. I’ve often wondered what it might be like to see one of these large cats padding through the snow, leaving footprints I’ve also come across.
I’ve heard a lot about this 20- to 30-pound creature, which has magnificent tufts of fur on its ears, wide paws and a bobbed tail. But I — and others — know little about its behavior, how it thrives, its movements across land and more.
Summit County has a few lynx living in the area, having moved northward from the 1999 reintroduction area of the San Juan Mountains. By 2005, more than 200 lynx had been released, and monitoring was beginning to show success. In September of last year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife announced the reintroduced population was self-sustaining. They’ve since switched their monitoring to another focus area.
“The lynx is found in dense sub-alpine forest and willow-choked corridors along mountain streams and avalanche chutes, the home of its favored prey species, the snowshoe hare,” the Division of Parks and Wildlife website states.
“The typical hunting strategy is patience, stalking prey or crouching in wait beside a trail. Often the surprised quarry is overtaken and dispatched in a single, furious bound. Lynx also eat some carrion, and capture ground-dwelling birds (like grouse) and small mammals. Lynx are active throughout the year; their huge hind feet help them move across heavy snow.”
Those dense, sub-alpine forests are what comprise the terrain for Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 6 proposed expansion—meaning the project’s effect on lynx has come under significant public scrutiny.
The Forest Service issued an amendment that allows the project to move forward despite being “likely to adversely affect” lynx and despite the project being situated in primary lynx habitat.
“Most of the Peak 5 and 6 habitat block below treeline is an intact, continuous, second-growth, spruce-fir dominated forest block that is little-used by humans,” the Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement states. “Most of the Peak 5 and 6 block also supports a multi-layered understory with . . . relatively high snowshoe hare track abundance.”
The statement adds that there is high-quality habitat along with low-quality and non-habitat in the area.
There’s also highly suitable habitat for lynx south of the ski resort. Lynx have been known to coexist with the ski resort operations in order to cross the Tenmile Range to connect with southerly habitat, the document states.
White River National Forest Service supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said previously that the lynx habitat in Breckenridge is already so fragmented that making the waiver shouldn’t have a dramatic impact. On the other hand, he said, there are collared lynx known to be living near Copper Mountain, making it a more sensitive area.
“We’re still learning about them, too,” said Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “How they adapt in Colorado, circa 2011, is not always consistent to what we know about lynx circa 1950,” he said, adding that some behaviors are unexpected — like appearing under ski lifts, and next to highways.
Indeed, according to the environmental impact statement, Colorado lynx have maneuvered across broken habitat, and have bedded down in areas proximate to human activity.
But the environmental impact statement also says that Colorado’s lynx habitat is already patchy and discontinuous.
“Maintaining landscape-level habitat connectivity may be paramount to maintaining a viable population,” the document states. “Colorado lynx habitats are not only constrained by broad alpine zones and non-forested valleys, but also by towns, reservoirs, highways and other human developments that fragment and isolate montane and subalpine lynx habitats.”
It adds, “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.”
Nonetheless, research and analysis seem to show that ski areas and lynx can coexist, primarily through the day-time uses of on-snow operations versus nighttime uses of the lynx, which are primarily nocturnal. Officials claim there’s a difference between habitat connectivity and the ability of a lynx to move through portions of the landscape.
Forest Service spokesman Pat Thrasher said Peak 6 is within the Forest Service’s larger lynx study area, but is a relatively small portion from an acreage standpoint. He added that all data collected from the area so far is raw and unanalyzed, including the lynx population of the area.
Breckenridge Ski Resort chief operating officer Pat Campbell said she and her mountain operators defer to the experts when it comes to their project’s impact on lynx.
“They determine the project design criteria and mitigation based on potential impacts,” she said. “We trust them to manage those public lands appropriately. It’s their say.”
Lynx were reintroduced to the area because biologists felt there was still good habitat for them to thrive. They are said to have disappeared from the area around 1973.
As Hampton said, the scientists and researchers involved are still learning about how the lynx adapts to the area. But what’s been learned so far and in other reintroduction efforts may be helpful in planning future carnivore reintroductions, such as wolverines, in Colorado and elsewhere.
Janice Kurbjun’s article is republished here with permission from the Summit Daily News.