Colt Summit: Researcher on Seeley Lake’s lynx and forest management

We’ve obviously had a number of in-depth discussions and debates about the Lolo National Forests’s Colt Summit timber sale in the Seeley-Swan Valley of western Montana. However, something just arrived in my in-box this morning, which I thought would be good to highlight here for further discussion.

It’s a 2009 letter from John R. Squires
, Research Wildlife Biologist
 at the Rocky Mountain Research Station
 in Missoula in response to specific questions from a rural landscape scientist with Missoula County’s Rural Initiatives program.  The subject of the letter is lynx, and specifically lynx in the Seeley Lake area of western Montana.  As frequent readers of this blog will recall, Missoula County joined with The Wilderness Society, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, National Wildlife Federal, Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wood Products Association, Montana Logging Association and others to file an amici brief in full and unequivocal support of the Forest Service’s Colt Summit timber sale.

However, despite the enthusiastic support of these collaborators, a federal district court judge issued the following ruling:

Summary judgment is granted in favor of the plaintiffs on their claim that the defendants violated NEPA by failing to adequately analyze the Colt Summit Project’s cumulative effects on lynx….

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this matter is REMANDED to the Forest Service so that it may prepare a supplemental environmental assessment consistent with this order and the law.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the defendants are enjoined from implementing the Colt Summit Project while the proceedings required on remand are pending.

Squires 2009 letter provides some more information regarding lynx in general, but also specifically about lynx in the Seeley Lake area and how these lynx – and their habitat – are impacted by forest management practices such as logging and “thinning.”   Of particular interest is that Squires states that “The Seeley Lake area represents some of the most important lynx habitat in Montana.”  And also, “[L]ynx are very sensitive to forest management, especially forest thinning.  Thinning reduces habitat quality for lynx with effects lasting up to several decades.”

Finally, there’s this tidbit of information from Squires, “[T]here is likely a threshold of thinning below which lynx will not be able to persist. The extent of forest thinning and forest fragmentation around Seeley in the last 5 years is of concern for lynx in western Montana.  Preliminary analysis of population viability suggest that lynx in the Seeley area may be declining, so concerns for maintaining available habitat does have a scientific basis.”

Below are some excerpts from Squires letter (please note that the added emphasis is mine):

We have studied lynx in western Montana for a decade and my answers are based on our understanding gained during this research.  I will focus my comments on our scientific understanding realizing that results from this research may have policy implications.  You asked the following questions:

1) What information can you provide about the importance of the Seeley Lake area to lynx, especially in regards to the Northern Rockies?



Since the federal listing of Canada lynx in 2000, it has become clear that Canada lynx have a very limited distribution in the contiguous United States. Other than Montana, native populations are only found in Washington, Maine, and small populations in Minnesota and Wyoming that may consist of only a few individuals. Lynx in western Montana represents possibly the most viable native population in the contiguous United States and it is a primary focus of conservation planning for the species….The Seeley Lake area represents some of the most important lynx habitat in Montana. The areas surrounding Seeley Lake are not only central to the conservation and management of Canada lynx in western Montana, but also to the management of the species in the contiguous United States. 



Lynx avoid low elevation, dry forest types and the open high elevation tundra habitats. Lynx are restricted to high elevation, spruce-fir forests, like those found around Seeley Lake. We compared habitat characteristics found in 59 lynx home ranges to 500 random areas of similar size. We found that lynx preferentially select home ranges with low topographic roughness; they generally avoid the very steep topographies like the central portions of Glacier National Park and parts of the Bob Marshall Complex. Instead, lynx preferentially select spruce-fir forests found in more rolling topographies, like those found in Seeley Lake and in the Purcell Mountains north of Libby, MT.  These boreal landscapes are rare in western Montana and they are the landscapes most impacted by forest management. The spruce-fir forests that surround Seeley Lake are readily used by lynx (Figure 1). The future management of these forests will be important to the species’ recovery.

Figure 1. GPS locations of Canada lynx using lands surrounding Seeley Lake, Montana.

2) How have lynx persisted in Seeley Lake despite extensive timber harvesting and recreation?

Based on 10 years of research in western Montana, we recognize that lynx occupy a very narrow habitat niche due to their highly-specialized, morphological adaptations for hunting snowshoe hares in deep-snow. During winter, lynx hunt preferentially in mature, multi-layer, spruce-fir forests. In summer, lynx remain in their same home ranges, but they broaden their niche to also include young regenerating forests that contain dense horizontal cover. Lynx are almost completely dependent on snowshoe hares (96% winter food biomass) for food, and the abundance of hares is directly rated to the amount of horizontal cover provided by forests vegetation. Therefore, lynx are very sensitive to forest management, especially forest thinning.  Thinning reduces habitat quality for lynx with effects lasting up to several decades.

Although lynx are sensitive to forest management, they do persist in the Seeley Lake area and other managed landscapes, provided that a mosaic of suitable habitat is available, including a high abundance of un-thinning forests. Landscapes that offer a mosaic of forest age and structure classes provide habitat for denning and foraging. Although substantial forest thinning has occurred in the Seeley Lake area, lynx have been able to use un-thinned habitats. However, there is likely a threshold of thinning below which lynx will not be able to persist. The extent of forest thinning and forest fragmentation around Seeley in the last 5 years is of concern for lynx in western Montana.  Preliminary analysis of population viability suggest that lynx in the Seeley area may be declining, so concerns for maintaining available habitat does have a scientific basis.

7 Comments

  1. Although the author keeps referring to “10 years of research,” his conclusions appear to be nothing more than personal opinions and speculation. I don’t believe they are accurate, either. Why forest management activities would limit snowshoe hare (and thus lynx) populations for decades into the future seems to be contradicted by actual historical forest management and lynx population data in the area. Even if the data were accurate, the author’s “therefore” statements do not follow logically from his “research” assertions.

    If I were the judge, I would have reviewed the “science” behind these assertions and allowedmanagement to go forward if these statements can’t be confirmed by actual research findings, or at least supported by the opinions of other wildlife biologists. At the very least.

    What does Charles Kay think?

      • I believe this habitat is critical for wildlife biologists. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that their pronouncements are based on good evidence and logical analysis, rather than simple personal bias. I’m not sure about lynx populations, but I do know that a lot of the so-called “science” behind “endangered” coho, tree mice, marbled murrelets, and spotted hoot owls seems to be based far more on the like-minded opinions of a few scientists than on any actual scientific findings that can be documented or replicated.

  2. Two basic points: there is a procedural issue ( whether enough documentation of cumulative effects was done) and a substantive issue (if it violates ESA). The judge found not enough cumulative effects documentation, but no violation of the substantive issue.

    Now, I was trying to figure out what the judge didn’t see, but wanted to see in the next round. It really wasn’t clear to me from his order, so I got a copy of the FS brief where they answer the claim of inadequate documentation. What got my interest aroused was the fact that they did adequate cumulative effects on everything else (which proves they could) , but did not for one species.. what’s up with that? Anyway, when I get back from vacation, I’ll look into this more deeply.

    The second point is one that Bob has already articulated. Even in the simple world of administrative appeals, you need to make a link between FACTS FOUND and CONCLUSIONS DRAWN. As in “because I found in my research that lynx do x, then I conclude that this project of 597 acres and underburning will have an impact of y on z population of lynx.” That’s what we need to discuss this scientifically and to hear different facts and different conclusions.

    For example, in the letter Squires says..

    “The areas surrounding Seeley Lake are not only central to the conservation and management of Canada lynx in western Montana, but also to the management of the species in the contiguous United States.”

    What does “central” mean? More important than others? What specific aspects make them more important?

    Here’s another one:

    Preliminary analysis of population viability suggest that lynx in the Seeley area may be declining, so concerns for maintaining available habitat does have a scientific basis.

    If we set aside the “preliminary” and “may be”, we find the logic to be something like… if lynx are in decline, we need to protect all habitat. I would argue, that if lynx are in decline we would need to carefully test hypotheses of why that may be occurring (climate change with less snow? disease in hares? ) because we could be “protecting” habitat that is not really helpful. Maybe all that is known, but the logic linkage needs to be stated, if so, and others with a variety of perspectives and disciplines should be able to weigh in.

    I’d like to go knowledge claim by knowledge claim, talk about how that relates to this project and involve a variety of researchers and practitioners, including the biologist on the project and the FWS biologist who gave their opinion. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to, while it’s in litigation. The cone of silence and all that.

    Otherwise, it’s just another scientist “drive-by” .

  3. Gotta love it! John R. Squires being accused of “just another scientist ‘drive-by'” and spouting “personal opinions and speculation” about his “research” and “science.”

    This is the same John R. Squires that’s the leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s lynx study at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula. The same John R. Squires that for more than a decade has headed up one of the most comprehensive lynx studies in the entire nation.

    Yup, clearly Squires don’t know squat about lynx and their habitat needs. Whatever…..

    • No, I didn’t criticize Squires as a scientist; I am sure he knows a lot more than I do about lynx in the area..

      I was talking about this specific letter, and the utility in my view, of that generic letter to this specific discussion (about the Colt Summit project).

      I was saying specifically that that letter did not have the information I needed to see how exactly the findings of the scientific research translated to conclusions drawn about the Colt Summit project . Because, the letter was not specifically asking him about the Colt Summit project. His answers make sense in the context that the questions were raised, but rather it is using the letter in the context of the legal discussion about Colt Summit and cumulative effects that’s a “drive-by” in my opinion.

      For example, he states:
      “However, there is likely a threshold of thinning below which lynx will not be able to persist.”
      “Not persisting” is a pretty serious thing for an endangered species.

      Now since he was not asked about the project, he couldn’t answer my question which would be what he thinks about how these specific 597 acres are related to that threshold and why. Then we could actually have an interesting dialogue. What are the lynx doing on those acres now that they won’t be able to do if there is a thinning? Do all the lynx biologists agree on that? Why or why not? How important is the time they spend there? Are there nearby acres where they could do the same thing? How soon will it be before other acres grow into the kind of habitat that was displaced? What happens if there is a fire (say a variety of different fire scenarios) and how does that affect the things the lynx would have done on the 597 acres? I suppose that those are the questions that the biologists that worked on the project addressed.

      Also it seems to me (and Larry has said this) that a wildfire might also reduce more than that many acres of habitat. So maybe we would want to identify key lynx habitat in the Seeley Lake area to receive special attention for fire suppression to protect those acres? This might be another interesting discussion, and sounds like it might be very important to the species given the content of the letter. Or maybe it’s just thinning (removing of some trees) but not fire (potentially removing more trees) that threatens lynx at the landscape scale?

      Anyway, my point was that if we are discussing the lynx impacts of the project and the potential cumulative effects, we need to do that, specifically. That’s why we do EAs and EISs. Otherwise, we could just put together interviews with researchers and use that documentation to make decisions. However, legally, we still have to make the linkage between facts found and conclusions drawn, even if an expert is drawing the conclusions.

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