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Lynx released in the San Juans of Southern Colorado, like the one in this 2006 file photo, are making their way north and running into some barriers at Vail Pass, where intense recreational use is adversely affecting the cats, according to a recent Forest Service study. Photo by Bob Berwyn. More of his nature, mountain and landscape pictures are online at his Imagekind gallery.

Lynx Pinched by Recreation

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.

Check out the Summit Daily News story on the Vail Pass study here. Some background info on the history of the study is in this sidebar story.

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.

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  1. Bob, I remember your lynx column from 2006:

    Piecemeal creep of the issues associatated wtih lynx reintroduction doesn’t seem to be the way to go. I favor more comprehensive assessements where the stakeholders can see what the sacrifices are.

  2. Then there are disease issues including plague in their food sources. See:

    Plague as a Mortality Factor in Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis) Reintroduced to Colorado

    Margaret A. Wild1,3,4, Tanya M. Shenk1 and Terry R. Spraker2
    1 Colorado Division of Wildlife, Wildlife Research Section, 317 W. Prospect Rd, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, USA;
    2 Colorado State University Diagnostic Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA
    4 Corresponding author (email:

    ABSTRACT: As part of a species recovery program, 129 Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) originating from British Columbia, the Yukon, Manitoba, and Quebec, Canada, and Alaska, USA, were reintroduced to southwestern Colorado, USA, from 1999 to 2003. Of 52 lynx mortalities documented by October 2003, six lynx, including a female and her 5-mo-old kitten, had evidence of Yersinia pestis infection as determined by fluorescent antibody test and/or culture. Postmortem findings in these lynx were characterized by pneumonia, ranging from acute suppurative pneumonia, to multifocal necrotizing pneumonia, to fibrinous bronchopneumonia. Histopathologic examination of lung revealed multiple areas of inflammation and consolidation, areas of edema and hemorrhage, and bacteria surrounded by extensive inflammation. Spleens had severe lymphoid depletion and hypocellular red pulp. Lymphadenomegaly was observed in only one plague-affected lynx. We hypothesize that these Canada lynx were exposed to Y. pestis by infected prey, and these are the first reports of plague in this species.

  3. I agree that piecemeal management probably isn’t the way to go, but we gotta start somewhere, right? And in our neck of the woods, Vail Pass is a key movement corridor. Maybe we can think of Vail Pass as a test case rather than piecemeal management, as in can we manage recreation in this specific area in a way that still enables lynx to use the same space?

    As for plague as a mortality factor, the fact is that human-caused deaths, be it poaching or collisions with cars, is a much bigger issue, which in my mind underscores the point of management. About one-third of the documented deaths were human caused.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s a fascinating topic.

  4. Bob, I watched as many millions were invested to bring back the blackfooted ferrret in Montana’s Missouri Breaks south of Malta. Land was withdrawn from human access and recreation. This effort failed because of plague in the prariedog fleas.

    Lack of comprehensive planning led to this failure. The place to start– better planning and consideration of the varibles. To come back to the recreational community time and time again to give more and more is the type of issue creep I was referring to. That being said I am somewhat skeptical of the impacts of snowmobilers for only a few months of the year and how that is any more an obstacle than county roads and state highways. Animals tend to adapt. Many of the wild cats are night travelers and hunters. Most snowmobilers tend to operate in the daylight hours. If there is the ‘gap’ between the areas, I suggest a more thorough analysis of causes. As with ferrets and plague, many factors are often overlooked.

  5. Here we go again – IGNORE the hard scince becuase it doesn’t agree with our pt. iof view or wallets!!
    I’d like to see all these people JUST Ignore the SAME hard science techniques that provides them with medicine for their ED, Diabetes and Clogged Arteries!!
    The TRUTH isn’t Always Pretty!!

  6. Well, they actually run nighttime snowmobile tours up at Vail Pass, too. But the cats need daytime security areas, and those are being compromised to the point where it’s making it tough for lynx to use the area at all.

    It’s actually pretty hard to describe the scene up there on a winter weekend. Even without lynx, it’s a mess, not fun for me, anyway. Clearly, the area has reached, if not exceeded, a comfortable carrying capacity for wildlife and recreation, and the FS study just quantifies that.

    I don’t think it’s just the snowmobilers, but the totality of the use up there. And again, to make a contrast, in this neck of the woods, the habitat is naturally fragmented, and then additionally fragmented and cut up by roads, reservoirs, development along riparian corridors. All that makes the bottlenecks like Vail Pass even more important.

  7. As a conservative troll, Craig’s speciality is to come up with distractions, like this plague gambit, in an effort to divert attention from the sheer weight of our incremental impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat.
    For all that plague might be a factor, Bob is correct in pointing out that there is much we don’t know and what we do know indicates that development and industrial wreckreation have much more damaging impact on wildlife than anything Mother Nature can throw at them.

  8. Plus, plague is something we can’t control, but managing and/or controlling recreation is something we can at least try.

  9. Perhaps my commentary here is unwelcome. I invite Dinky to take over and continue. Perhaps his display of cowardice hiding behind a nom-de-guerre while insulting others is more appropriate to the topic.

  10. We were skiing out from Janet’s Hut on Jan 23, 08 and another member of our group saw and photographed a Lynx on the trail just after I had passed through on my skis.

  11. One commenter writes that “time and time again” the recreation community is asked to gives up “more and more” for wildlife or environmental issues Yet in the last decade, and in the face of greatly increased environmental awareness, recreation on western Federal lands has expanded for every type of user.

    While science documents recreation’s impacts on natural resources, ski areas continue to expand, and motorized and mechanized trail miles continue to grow – rapidly. Wildlife and other environmental concerns make flashy headlines giving the appearance that action will follow, but in reality the headlines have not yet translated into meaningful action sufficient to assure the health of our ecosystems.

    Sure, I can list places where recreation has been limited – usually by granting only ‘most’ of the wishes of the recreation developers, or in a last, desperate attempt to save an imperiled resource (i.e. ferrets). But recreational use, and the lands commited to it continue to grow, and consequently the impacts from recreation are greater than ever before.

    In closing, I’ll argue that environmental resources on Federal lands have been far more impacted by recreation than recreation has been impacted by environmental issues. That will – forever – be true.