The Missing Lynx

by Vincent Carroll
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Reprinted with permission of
The Wall Street Journal (January 21, 1998)

Environmentalists are renowned enemies of mining, logging and grazing on public lands, but lately they've even begun opposing recreational uses. Green groups are trying to halt the expansion of the Vail ski area in Colorado by invoking the welfare of the lynx, an animal that has not been seen in the state for a quarter-century.

The missing lynx have not dodged notice for lack of human interest. The Colorado Division of Wildlife offers a reward for information that would establish their existence; it hasn't paid out a dime. Over the years, wildlife officials have conducted no fewer than a dozen investigations to locate the animals. They've deployed remote cameras at more than 100 locations, set out snags on which passing cats would leave hair, and slogged countless miles in their search for tracks or other evidence. The paltry product of all this labor: the discovery of a few sets of tracks that may have been lynx. No wonder the division has concluded that "if any lynx remain in Colorado their numbers are so small that they do not represent a viable population and are not detectable by known census methods."

Not that lynx ever exactly swarmed over the Colorado Rockies, which apparently were the southern extent of their range. There are but 18 documented records of lynx in state history--14 from 1878 to 1935, and just four thereafter. The last two lynx were illegally trapped in February 1973 in Mushroom Bowl at Vail. One escaped; the other died.

One might suppose that if lynx were last spotted at a ski resort, lynx are not necessarily incompatible with a ski resort. Instead, that last lynx sighting has meant that Vail Associates, in order to complete its final phase of expansion, has had to make unprecedented efforts not just to maintain potential lynx habitat but to enhance the likelihood of a lynx revival. Vail's multitude of agreements with federal and state officials include a pledge not to develop mountain-bike trails within the new area or to promote any recreational activity, including hiking, from May 1 to Nov. 1. All organized summer recreation--horse rides, for example--will be banned, not just in the new area but in the existing back ski bowls.

Meanwhile, the ski trails themselves will be created not by the common practice of grading the mountainside, but by "flush-cutting" stumps and by thinning trees rather than clear-cutting them, to minimize the impact on terrain. A host of other measures will so limit the loss of habitat likely to appeal to the lynx and its principal prey, the snowshoe hare, that the development ultimately will affect only 58 acres of denning habitat and 120 acres of foraging habitat--or, the U.S. Forest Service estimates, about 1/1,000th of potential lynx habitat in just the eastern portion of the White River National Forest. Finally, Vail Associates has pledged to cap the ski area's total operating capacity at precisely what it is today: 19,900 skiers at any time.

All this effort, remember, for an animal no one has seen in Colorado for a generation.

None of this has satisfied a large coalition of environmental groups that includes the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Ancient Forest Rescue. They have fought the expansion step by step and, upon Forest Service approval of the project, twice launched administrative appeals. They have mustered every conceivable argument. Most imaginatively, they have faulted the project's biological evaluation for its failure to specify the number of lynx in the region--as if wildlife officials had blithely ignored a parade of the big-footed cats prancing by their doors. "The lynx is about to be listed nationwide as an endangered species, but the Forest Service and Vail can't take the time to find out just how many lynx are out there," a representative of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies recently complained.

Now, it is true that the lynx is going to be listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the designation is deserved, and a federal court ruling last month is likely to accelerate that decision. Yet it so happens that there still are a great many lynx out there--if by "out there" one includes Alaska and Canada. Most Americans might be surprised to learn that the term "endangered" does not necessarily mean that a species is in jeopardy. The designation can apply to a local population of a species--in this case the local population being the small number of lynx that still survive in the contiguous states. Meanwhile, lynx up north are so numerous that Colorado wildlife officials are studying the possibility of having some trapped for reintroduction in their state--the cost of which Vail Associates has indicated it would help defray.

Revealingly, environmental leaders at first reacted skeptically to the idea of importing lynx, in the lurid fear that the plan might be an attempt to forestall the endangered listing. Meanwhile, they refuse to rule out the possibility of taking Vail Associates' expansion plans into federal court. Sometimes, it seems, you practically need a scorecard to remind yourself who are supposed to be the professional friends of wildlife.

Mr. Carroll is editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

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