Colorado’s Experience with State-led Species Recovery

This is from a post by Greg Walcher, former Director of DNR in Colorado. I wonder if this approach might be applicable to other species? (my italics). I don’t intend to diss the fish efforts, but I’m more familiar with seeing lynx.

Colorado’s plan to reintroduce lynx to the southern Rocky Mountains became one of our greatest challenges. At first, many Coloradans were angry about the plan, which came in response to the Fish and Wildlife Service listing the lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But after dozens of meetings and hundreds of letters, emails, and calls to the department, governor’s office, and the state legislature, an extraordinary picture emerged. None of the complaints were about the lynx. Many opposed the lynx reintroduction plan, but not one single message contained any complaint about the animal itself. The concerns were instead about the federal land management policies that accompany endangered species listings.

Colorado’s lynx recovery program represented a state-led effort to carry out the original intent of the Endangered Species Act: to recover species that we might otherwise lose. In the case of the lynx, those fears were understandable. The U.S. Forest Service had ordered all national forests in Colorado to rewrite their management plans based on potential habitat for lynx, even though there were none in the state. All land managers, communities, and other stakeholders affected by the listing had to determine what it, as well as the Forest Service’s order, meant to them. Discussions often centered on whether to close roads and trails, ban snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, discontinue logging and mining, stop oil and gas exploration, close campgrounds, limit ski area expansions, or eliminate grazing. In short, the debate was about everything but the lynx.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has always insisted that Colorado is not prime lynx habitat. Lynx had rarely been seen there. The last one was trapped in 1973, and only 18 had ever been documented in the history of the state. Yet the Forest Service remained determined to include lynx recovery as a key component of its management plans in the state. From the state’s perspective, the only clear answer was to establish a thriving population. So we did just that. Between 1999 and 2006, we imported 218 lynx to Colorado from Canada and Alaska, outfitted them with satellite collars, and studied their behavior. Today, their population is thriving and self-sustaining in the state and, along the way, has disproved many of the Forest Service’s initial assumptions about the species.

Federal documents said the San Juan Mountains were the southernmost limit where lynx could live, yet several migrated farther south, even into New Mexico. Forest Service officials said the lynx ate only snowshoe hares, yet Colorado lynx have eaten a much more varied diet, including squirrels, prairie dogs, and birds. One died from plague after eating a diseased prairie dog; one ate a dog in Durango. Some officials claimed lynx were threatened by ski areas, yet at least one was monitored living in a ski area during the crowded winter season.

The Forest Service also maintained that lynx would not cross open areas greater than 100 yards. Yet several lynx introduced in southwest Colorado crossed enormous areas of wide-open spaces on lengthy migration routes. One was trailed to Nebraska, several through the San Luis Valley, and still others beyond Interstate 70 more than 200 miles north of their release. In 2007, one lynx crossed five counties into Kansas before being recaptured south of Wakeeney, some 375 miles across the Great Plains. Others have roamed north as far as Montana. But the ultimate traveler was a lynx that, after four years in Colorado, headed home to Canada, 1,200 miles from his release site in Mineral County.

Colorado’s success with its lynx recovery program is instructive because it represented a state-led effort to carry out the original intent of the Endangered Species Act: recover species that we might otherwise lose. Like hundreds of other listed species, lynx were not threatened simply because of habitat loss; they live primarily at high altitudes where there are no towns and little other human activity. They were threatened largely because they have beautiful fur, and for many years our ancestors trapped them for it. For a time, the government tried to blame the species’ decline on shrinking snowshoe hare populations caused by timber harvest, fire suppression, and climate change. But in reality, as we discovered in Colorado, the high Rocky Mountain habitat remains mostly intact, so reintroducing the lynx was the simple answer, and it worked.

Despite its proposed land-use restrictions to benefit the lynx, the federal government had no plans to establish any lynx populations in the state. In fact, is it unlikely that the federal system would ever have done anything to recover the lynx. The Endangered Species Act focuses almost exclusively on regulating habitat, not on recovery. That’s precisely why state leadership is essential.

7 thoughts on “Colorado’s Experience with State-led Species Recovery”

  1. Interesting that the comments are framed as “states good, feds bad”. I’m curious if Jon has anything to contribute since he was a major player for the FS when those land management plans were amended.

  2. I tend to agree – in my experience working with a half of dozen endangered species in/around USFS R8 and R9, it always seemed like USFS used this species to never engage in any management activity but when presented by the states and even USFWS opportunities to engage in proactive habitat enhancement activities or restoration, they would similarly balk. Two USFS foresters over my career come to my mind that said they would forego helping with any harvests even if they would generate substantial board feed if the purpose was for wildlife generally or endangered species specifically. I guess, because, well, cutting down trees for a multiple-use reason was not as purposeful as cutting down trees for the sake of cutting down trees. That was REALLY the case for fire re-introduction which the hardwood types hated despite knowing sans fire there would be no future oaks. In reality, they were lazy and an unwilling to write more complicated prescriptions and plans or do any post-harvest follow-up. Always found myself thinking when they would wax about wishing they had gone into industry “right – you’d last about a year procuring, cutting and rehabbing more harvests then than you would in a full 30 year career in USFS”.

  3. I don’t agree with the statement that it was “in response to the Fish and Wildlife Service listing” or that “The U.S. Forest Service had ordered all national forests in Colorado to rewrite their management plans based on potential habitat for lynx, even though there were none in the state.”

    The lynx science work in the Forest Service began in the late ’90s to attempt to avoid listing lynx by making changes to its forest plans. The first lynx were reintroduced in Colorado in 1999 and lynx were then listed in 2000. There was a representative from the Colorado FWS on the lynx science team in the ’90s because that reintroduction process was ongoing. I’m fairly sure the decision to begin amending Colorado forest plans was not made until after there were lynx on Colorado national forests. I know that amendment process in Colorado started later than the one for the Northern Rockies that I was leading, and was completed in 2008 (a year after the Northern Rockies in 2007).

    That said, my 20-year old memory is that I was surprised that Colorado decided to reintroduce lynx knowing that it could end up subject to ESA because of it. There may have been some thought that expanding occupied lynx habitat would help avoid listing, but that still seems like a gamble. So I give the state some credit that they just wanted to do this (which, in my experience, is not typical for more obscure species or all states). On the other hand, like other things Greg Walcher has written, this is probably too slanted towards states. Lynx is a case where habitat was not the reason for their disappearance from Colorado, but it has become a reason threatening their persistence in the southern part of their range (meaning the U. S.). The science still says that, despite the anecdotes provided with this post.

  4. There is another possible storyline. Maybe Colorado saw lynx as a money-maker someday when it becomes legal to kill them again (like the grizzly bear states). It’s pretty well understood that states make their money from game species, and those that people won’t pay to kill don’t get much attention. And when they do, it’s often using federal funding authorized by ESA. So yes, this Colorado lynx approach might work for some game species, but they are rarely the ones that need saving.

  5. Here’s Western Watersheds’ view of state-led species recovery:

    “States are under constant political pressure from the very same local industries that caused wildlife to decline in the first place, and when they bow to these pressures (as they do all too often), extinction can result. The Endangered Species Act provides a legal guarantee that all decisions regarding listed species be made solely based on the best available science, which excludes political meddling. State decisions put politics first and all too frequently ignore or undermine the science.”

  6. John,

    It’s been clearly demonstrated that all the reasons that enviornmental groups use to impose regulations are just based on skewed opinions. In other words people are bad, and we need to keep people off of Federal Lands by imposing stiff regulations. They simply use wildlife as a scapegoat to impose regulations. They don’t actually care about wildlife. They operate very similarly to the way the Soviet Union treated people. They don’t like or care for people. They don’t believe in God or the existence of any God, therefore we are just animals that don’t belong here. It’s the Evolutionary way of thinking that is taught in almost all University’s. Which is where most biologist’s are taught. Too bad! I commend The Division of Wildlife for reintroducing these cats, and for it being a success! However, there should be no regulations imposed on any Federal Lands. In fact I believe there should be limited hunting licenses issued so that hunters can buy and harvest these Lynx. All for the good of wildlife management. This recent initiative to try to reintroduce wolves into Colorado is a shame, and should be stopped. Because it will do much harm to other wildlife species in Colorado. We do not need wolves in Colorado to management big game herds, and we do not need the damage that it will cause to ranchers and hunters, and state budgets. It will literally bankrupt Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

  7. WB, you have made many claims about “environmental groups” and the people in them. There are bunches of groups with different perspectives who don’t agree with each other on what to do or on tactics to go about doing it. .. let alone if you asked each individual independently who belongs to those groups.

    I would tend to disagree with you about universities. They, again, come in all shapes and sizes. I was recently a student (a few years ago) at a theology school and plenty of people believed in God but still wanted to protect endangered species, or stop climate change. In fact, the Pope is talking about describing ecological sins as a new category (yes, the boss of same organization that thinks contraception outside of rhythm is already a sin). So I think it’s altogether more complicated than you may be thinking.

    But back in Colorado, the wolves are coming in anyway and CPW doesn’t want artificial reintroduction due to costs. So I’m still not sure why people are so enthusiastic about artificial reintroductions.


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