By Theo Stein
Denver Post – 1/31/2004
The U.S. Forest Service released a blueprint Friday for managing lynx in most of Colorado’s national forests that the agency acknowledges may damage lynx habitat and might not significantly improve the cat’s chances for survival in the Southern Rockies.
The draft environmental impact statement announced by the agency Friday proposes to establish rules and guidelines for conserving lynx populations while allowing other activities to continue on 12 million acres of national forest land in Colorado. But the new proposal is significantly weaker than the original recommendation by a group of lynx biologists and scientists that was the basis for the environmental study.
The new plan carves out blanket exemptions from the rules for oil and gas exploration, energy transmission facilities and forest-thinning work. The proposal would also allow expansion of snowmobile trails, which some biologists say increases competition from coyotes that travel on packed snow for scarce prey needed by the lynx.
“This proposal won’t protect lynx habitat,” said Rob Edward, director of carnivore conservation for the environmental group Sinapu. “What it protects is extractive industries and snowmobilers.”
Edward noted that a number of lynx protections required by the first proposal have become guidelines that forest managers would have the discretion to ignore.
The plan could decrease the amount of habitat available for snowshoe hare, an important lynx prey; reduce the number of lynx denning areas; and fragment lynx habitat, the Forest Service said.
Individual lynx are more likely to be affected under the new plan, and some areas may not be able to sustain lynx populations over the long run, it also said.
But the agency said the proposal would improve the outlook for lynx beyond current regulations.
Lois Poppert, the Forest Service’s Southern Rockies lynx EIS team leader, said changes in the plan were made to address the needs of other forest users while balancing the ecological needs of lynx.
“This alternative will allow actions to go forward if there’s a determination that they will not affect lynx or if they will have a short-term impact but long-term benefit,” she said.
The Canada lynx was considered extinct in Colorado until the state Division of Wildlife released 96 lynx in 1999 and 2000. Another 33 were released in 2003, the same year researchers documented successful reproduction with the discovery of 16 lynx kittens.
But the Southern Rockies Canada Lynx Amendment Draft Environmental Impact Statement said proposed forest management changes would “adversely affect” lynx habitat and make it less likely the species could recover.
About 47 percent of the 12.2 million acres of suitable lynx habitat on the Arapaho-Roosevelt, Pike- San Isabel, Medicine Bow-Routt, Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison, San Juan and Rio Grande national forests are located in areas zoned for logging, grazing, ski resorts, snowmobiling and utility corridors.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which designated lynx a threatened species in 2000, will examine the proposed plan, which would be implemented in each of the affected national forests.
The study did not look at the White River National Forest, which adopted stronger lynx requirements in 2002 than the Forest Service is now recommending for the rest of Colorado.
Poppert said exemptions for energy development and forest thinning were included to comply with President Bush’s energy and healthy-forest initiatives.
Restrictions to protect lynx that might discourage or prohibit mineral development could affect communities by eliminating jobs and placing energy reserves off-limits to development, the report noted.
Forest Service spokesman Randy Wilkerson said forest managers will still be required to review guidelines describing lynx protection goals when considering new development.
Conservation groups said reduced monitoring requirements in the new proposal would make it more difficult to assess the impact on lynx from logging projects to prevent wildfires, and from snowmobile and energy development.
Greg Schnacke, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, noted that most energy development occurs at lower elevations than the snow-loving lynx prefers.
“The chance that a lynx and a particular operation would cross paths would be rare,” he said.
One timber industry spokesman said the economic long-term reductions in commercial timber harvest envisioned by the proposal were not adequately evaluated.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to do this kind of a plan that addresses all these forests without a more serious look at the trade-offs and effects,” said Tom Troxel, regional director of Intermountain Forestry Association.
Wilkerson said the agency is accepting comments on the environmental impact statement through April 29. A series of public meetings on the proposal will be scheduled in late February or early March.