Summit County, CO, Nov. 16--A Canadian lynx released by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) in the San Juans last spring has been spotted alive and well at Keystone Ski Area. According to wildlife biologists, the cat's movements in Summit County indicate it probably used a critical wildlife corridor that has been at issue during recent discussions surrounding development at Keystone.
Federal and local agencies are currently evaluating several proposals in the Keystone area, including a ski area terrain expansion. Biologists say that, individually, none of the developments constitute a fatal flaw to the corridor. But cumulatively, they could affect its viability.
Biologists agree that the corridor represents one of the last narrow slivers of undeveloped and forested terrain in Summit County--and one of the very few in the central part of the state--that provides north-south continuity for sensitive forest species including lynx. State, federal and local agencies have been working with the resort to preserve enough undeveloped land to protect the corridor.
The two-year-old female lynx was relocated from Alaska and released May 10 as part of a controversial effort by CDOW to reestablish a population of the rare cats. A ski area worker first sighted the cat near the mid-mountain Argentine Lift Oct. 3. The ski area notified the Division of Wildlife, which dispatched a plane to track the cat, said District Wildlife Manager Tom Kroening.
"Keystone called us immediately," Kroening said, crediting the resort with doing the right thing. Since the initial sighting, biologists have been able to track the signal emitted by the animal's radio collar during weekly flyovers. The lynx moved from Keystone to the Montezuma area, between Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. As of Oct. 22, it had managed to cross I-70 to an area northeast of Dillon, Kroening said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is preparing to list the lynx as either endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, a move that could affect ski-area development in Colorado, as the federal regulators could then block development on land deemed critical habitat.
Lynx habitat was central to the controversy over Vail's Cat III (now Blue Sky Basin) expansion, as environmentalists claimed the expansion would destroy valuable lynx habitat. The last confirmed lynx sighting in Colorado(prior to the start of CDOW's recovery effort) was at Vail ski area.
It's no surprise that lynx keep turning up around ski areas, said USFWS biologist Gary Patton, explaining that prime lynx habitat and ski area terrain overlap. Patton said Summit County represents a crucial north-south crossroads for wildlife movement in the state.
If the corridor near Keystone is lost, "all remaining potential for landscape connectivity from the Continental Divide to the Tenmile Range will be lost permanently, " Patton said. That would be a significant setback, not just for lynx, but for other wildlife, he added.
Despite the overlap between lynx habitat and ski area terrain, some biologists believe that, with extensive mitigation, the cat and skiers can coexist.