Ignore the hordes of Californians moving to fill mountain town subdivisions. There’s more to worry about. Forget the Noo Yawk Wall Street fella building a 35,000-square-foot home for his once-a-winter, seven-day ski vacation. There’s a new immigrant to ski country, whose land needs dwarf those of Vail, Steamboat and other ski areas.
To build his home, this guy can’t just get by with a truckload of two-by-fours; he needs acres of trees, cut free by the government! Hot dogs from the A&P aren’t enough for him. He has finicky tastes-lièvre sur la neige, please. Even in his total absence, he has attorneys willing to argue that land, simply having the potential for him to live on, shouldn’t be developed for skiing. Meet the Canadian Lynx, a shy, hissing, 22-pound, 26-to-42-inch-long, feline bundle of gray-brown, tawny streaked fur, with paws as big as baseball pitcher Randy Johnson’s giant left hand. The lynx can hunt and travel superbly in deep snow-like the snowshoe hare, its primary prey and typically 80 percent of its diet.
In Canada and Alaska, where lynx skulk in new growth forest, the main threat to their existence is trappers, who sell pelts that make gorgeous $5,000 jackets. In the lower 48 states, the cat has become scarce for a different reason: roads and development. Thirteen environmental groups have sued the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Canadian Lynx an endangered species. The agency will decide the animal’s status in January.
It’s not as if the lynx’s gene pool needs to be saved from extinction. The cats are successfully reproducing north of the border. But endangered species law encourages the idea that animals like the lynx, wolf and grizzly bear, be restored in the contiguous lower 48.
The biological case for putting lynx in Colorado, however, is weak. Bordering the southern tip of the cat’s range, the state has never been home to many lynx-there have only been 18 confirmed records of its existence since 1878. As recently as two years ago, Fish & Wildlife declined to list it as endangered “because other species are in more critical need.” Now the lynx is atop the list, thanks to the new science of politicized wildlife biology.
Colorado’s Wildlife Division recently brought 41 lynx down from Canada and Alaska to take up residence. As of September, all but a half-dozen or so appear to have survived. The radio-collared cats have dispersed over hundreds of miles. If they keep going north, they may return to where they came from, seeking snowshoe hare to eat.
Two centuries ago, the Hudson Bay Company discovered the lynx population fluctuates with that of the snowshoe hare. When, about every 10 years, snowshoe hare over-browse and die off, a similar cycle of lynx numbers follows, as predictably as the sun setting.
Considering the hare’s importance to lynx survival, surprisingly little is known about it in Colorado, except that hare numbers don’t cycle as they do in places where the animal is populous. This means that Colorado Hare exist at the low end of the cycle, at best. It’s not a hopeful omen.
The absence of native Colorado lynx-the last one seen was a trapped animal in 1973 near Vail-hasn’t discouraged activists from claiming its habitat is threatened. That was the legal plaint unsuccessfully employed by environmentalists in their attempt to block Vail’s famous expansion, known as Category 3.
The edges of developed ski slopes have proven to be hospitable to wildlife. Elk populations in the Rockies are at record highs. “Animals are amazingly adaptable,” notes Rick Kahn at Colorado’s Division of Wildlife. Vail has donated $200,000 to the lynx introduction program, and the ski industry is actively supporting efforts to obtain more knowledge about what’s happening to the released cats.
Families of lynx have been seen around ski areas like Panorama in British Columbia and Kananaskis in Alberta. “The animal is both curious and elusive,” says Clayton Apps, one of North America’s fforemost authorities on the Canadian Lynx. A wildlife biologist with Parks Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Apps has been studying the cat for the past four years.
“Lynx appear to prefer early succession forest and landscape that’s not severely mountainous,” he says, “like broad, rolling valleys with good snow cover, where hare congregate as well. We don’t know much about how it reacts to a human disturbance like skiing.” Apps says that the lynx is unlikely to do well in places it has not previously inhabited, and that not enough is known on how man can go about creating habitat for it.
Such absence of knowledge hasn’t discouraged the U.S. Forest Service, landlord to half of the nation’s skiing. Officials at Colorado’s White River National Forest-home to a dozen ski areas, including Vail, Aspen, Snowmass, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain-recently proposed a resource management plan that can only leave both tree huggers and skiers scratching their heads. The agency wants to cut down trees, not to feed saw mills, but to foster the growth of new vegetation favored by lynx. Yet, under an alternative plan favoring ski area growth, fewer trees would be chopped down than in the agency’s alternative that’s said to be eco-friendly.
The Forest Service has deemed recreation use a major goal in the next century, along with the protection of watersheds and plant and wildlife. Good. But is it more important to create habitat for lynx, with little assurance that the animal can survive, or to create new habitat for downhill skiing that, winter after winter for 60 years, has provided millions of Americans with healthy outdoor exercise and fun?
The agency has said it will curtail recreation visits wherever and whenever they threaten ecosystems. But there’s no evidence that ski areas, occupying 1.8 percent of the White River National Forest’s 2.3 million acres, are so crowded that their future expansion is a threat to ecosystems on federally owned land.
The problem of large ski areas is the raw, unplanned growth that they trigger outside the federal permit areas they operate on. Bordering the national forests today are shopping strips and valleys choked with condominiums and second homes. County and town governments, lacking the will or tempted by illusory tax revenues and jobs, have often failed to prevent sprawl or to conserve open space. Many are now facing those responsibilities for the first time.
But land use is a messy issue, and so folks find it easier to stew about an animal that, until a few months ago, hadn’t been seen in Colorado in 26 years.
This is how we now proceed in these matters. The complex issue of saving old-growth trees, for example, devolves into a fight over the spotted owl. The contrived residency of the lynx is a substitute for intelligent discussion of what to do about space for recreation in our mountains and the development it incurs.
One faction wants to focus narrowly on ski terrain as lynx habitat. Others want to address the broad issues of how best to allow for economic and recreation growth in the mountains without damaging the sustainability of the forest, watersheds and scenery. The simplistic way looks like it’s winning out, again.
John Fry writes extensively on environmental issues and helped organize two national conferences on the impacts of the boom in mountain living. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of SKI and Founding Editor of Snow Country.