The Missing Lynx

The U.S. Forest Service and the Vail ski resort have pressured Colorado Division of Wildlife personnel to stop grumbling about an expansion by the giant ski resort that would damage what is possibly the last refuge of the state's elusive lynx population.

The war of words over the lynx, revealed in internal documents obtained by Westword, came to a halt when the Forest Service stifled critical comments by DOW officials over Vail's plans to build new ski runs on public land. The documents show that the federal agency is ignoring the state agency's warnings about the lynx, which may already have been driven out of the state.

"We should be able to rely upon our state and federal agencies to watch out for public lands," says Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "But in this case, only a few people did, and they were ignored. This expansion has been a ramrod process. The incestuous relationship between the Forest Service and Vail is sickening."

Smith questions why Vail officials should be catered to at the possible expense of the lynx. "They're already the biggest resort in North America," he says. "The bottom line is that this critter is going to be extinct just because Vail wants more real estate."

What makes environmentalists so angry is that the Forest Service has ignored warnings from DOW scientists that the 100-acre expansion into the Two Elk Creek area south of Vail could wipe out the best possible Colorado habitat of the lynx. "They don't want anyone, let alone a state agency, telling them how this plan could negatively impact the lynx," says Smith.

Both the Forest Service and the DOW agree that there aren't many lynx left anywhere. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has categorized the lynx as a candidate for its endangered species list, and Rocky Smith points out that the animals are already extinct in thirteen states where they once roamed. Lynx populations have been confirmed only in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Maine. Whether or not they still exist in Colorado is anyone's guess. DOW officials say that the last reported lynx sighting in Colorado occurred more than twenty years ago at Vail, when a live specimen was trapped.

But Smith says that doesn't mean the animals aren't out there. "Because the lynx is very shy, nocturnal and confined to heavily wooded areas means they're very difficult to spot," he says. "But even if they don't exist at Vail, the fact that lynx have been spotted there in the past means that it could be an ideal spot for reintroduction."

The inter-agency squabble over the lynx broke out last year, when the Forest Service issued its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Vail expansion. DOW officials are carefully avoiding direct criticism of their federal brethren, but some facts speak for themselves: The DOW's critique of the EIS was forty pages long. "That would indicate that we had some problems with it," says Bill Andree, Vail District wildlife manager for the DOW.

The DOW's internal documents are more revealing.
"We are concerned with the way the USFS is portraying the 'value' of the Two Elk area to lynx survival in Colorado," DOW wildlife-management supervisor Rick Kahn wrote in an e-mail last July 24 to the DOW staff. "We pointed out that since 1935 only FOUR lynx have been documented in Colorado, three of those in the immediate vicinity of the proposed expansion. Personally, we feel the USFS is using some 'contrived logic' in their biological evaluation. In fact, they were somewhat reluctant to allow the DOW more time to analyze the document and comment further."

Documents show that the DOW's concerns about the lynx had been brewing for some time. DOW habitat biologist John Toolen wrote to Andree on September 29, 1996: "I am concerned that we are letting the USFS make statements that are incorrect. There are studies and several different biologists' opinions that contradict the USFS opinion. If we are wildlife experts it's time to put it in writing. In reading the [EIS] there are several issues we raised in our letter that have not been answered or addressed."

On May 16, 1997, Toolen complained to Andree that "the Lynx Conservation Strategy is below rudimentary stage. To date the CDOW has not been contacted for information. Since the USFS is a land management agency and the CDOW is the wildlife management agency, discussion on any plan involving wildlife must include CDOW."

The Forest Service clearly was paying no attention, according to the documents. "This thing is getting messy," Toolen wrote in a July 30 e-mail to the DOW staff. "Both the Forest Service and [Vail] are asking me that we avoid, if at all possible, making any further comments in writing. The Forest Service and [Vail] are in a big hurry to get this thing finished. The politics involved in this are way beyond anything I feel comfortable dealing with. It's time for the big kahunas to step in and deal with it."

One of the big kahunas did--and not the way Toolen wanted.
Despite the protests of some subordinates, Robert Caskey, the DOW's west region manager, agreed to support the Forest Service and okayed the Vail expansion.

Caskey was unavailable for comment. And Forest Service officials are trying to put a smooth face on the sniping between the agencies. "We always let folks in the DOW know what's going on, and we welcome their input," says Loren Kroenke, the Forest Service's acting manager of the Holy Cross District, which includes Vail. "We don't always agree, but in a case like this, there's plenty of room for professional disagreement."

Kroenke explains the Forest Service's request for a halt to DOW's written comments as "a matter of efficiency."

"This was a case where we were at a point in the process almost at the finish line," he says. "The report was put together, and we were trying to complete it, and there was no room or time to add extra documentation."

"That's a load of crap," says environmentalist Smith. The DOW's Andree puts it more gently: "I personally have never seen a case where there's too much documentation."

Despite an official appeal to Forest Service Regional Director Elizabeth Estill by seven environmental groups and twelve individuals opposing the expansion, Vail officials say they expect the project to get under way next July.

Vail hired its own biologist, Rick Thompson, who not unexpectedly concluded that despite the fact that "we don't know squat about Colorado lynx," the Vail expansion probably couldn't hurt the already borderline population any further.

"There's no basis for holding this up," says Paul Witt, communications manager for Vail Associates. "We conducted the most comprehensive studies ever done in Colorado on the lynx. This is not a rush to judgment. We've had this land permitted since 1962."

Witt says Vail has agreed not only to pay the salary of a Forest Service employee to monitor seasonal use in the expanded territory but also to implement various "mitigating factors" concentrated on improving the Vail area for lynx and their prey.

"Horseshit," says Rocky Smith. "What they're doing is intellectual dishonesty. They're saying that they should be allowed to destroy land where the lynx has been proven to exist so long as they agree to some vague conservation effort? The habitat improvements Vail says they're going to implement will take at least 25 years. What's the lynx going to do? Wait around?"

DOW officials are. Just a few months after the Forest Service asked the DOW to stop sending in written comments about the lynx, John Toolen sounds resigned to the situation. "Working on these things is nightmarish from the Forest Service point of view, and I could see why they'd want to get it done in a timely fashion," he says. "Having another letter from us might have just complicated things."

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Tony Perez-Giese