Southern Rockies (Colorado) Lynx: Disappearing or Stable? LCAS and the RG Plan

Mapped summer exploratory routes of lynx from Colorado

Matthew posted this about litigation on the Rio Grande plan.

The Canada lynx relies heavily on the Rio Grande National Forest in the Southern Rocky Mountains, which contains more than half the locations in Colorado where lynx are consistently found. But the population is in dire straits, and federal scientists predict that the lynx may disappear from Colorado altogether within a matter of decades. The Forest Service’s new plan has now opened the extremely important lynx habitat in the forest to logging, one of the biggest threats to the cat.

“Scientists are saying the Canada lynx population in the Rio Grande National Forest is in the ‘emergency room,’ but the Forest Service refuses to provide this species with the care it needs,” said Lauren McCain, senior policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “

Since CPW monitors lynx populations, I called them and found that the total lynx population in Colorado is actually stable based on their monitoring. So to say in Colorado RG pops are in “dire straits” does not appear to be accurate, unless there is info somewhere that the RG population is in decline, but it averages out because other pops are expanding (?). It also seems like the LCAS (the statewide lynx forest plan amendment), which has been in existence since 2008, would still be in place under the new RG plan. So if that’s the case (CPW is not the “logging industry” and lynx isn’t hunted, so shouldn’t we trust them?), why would “federal scientists” make those predictions about the species as a whole disappearing from Colorado? Climate change? And yet, if that were the case, why choose southern Colorado for lynx reintroduction? (that was in 1997, so that wasn’t as much of a concern as today).

But.. if you reintroduce species to the southern part of their range, that depend on snowpack during the winter, and then they ultimately have trouble from climate change..is the solution to stop logging? Even with LCAS in place? Ultimately then, it could be argued that anything that disturbs lynx is a threat, and on that basis should be stopped, including, possibly, recreation of all kinds. And yet, with current levels of all those activities, numbers of the species state-wide have remained stable. But we need to do more protective habitat interventions even so, just in case? And what if at the end of the day, we have kept everyone out (and removed developed ski areas) and the lynx still moves north due to climate change?

Here’s the history from CPW:

Colorado represents the southern-most historical distribution of naturally occurring lynx, where the species occupied the higher elevation, montane forests in the state (U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000). Lynx were extirpated or reduced to a few animals in Colorado, however, by the late 1970’s (U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000), most likely due to multiple human-associated factors, including predator control efforts such as poisoning and trapping (Meaney 2002). Given the isolation of and distance from Colorado to the nearest northern populations of lynx, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife [CPW]) considered reintroduction as the best option to reestablish the species in the state…

The DOW’s strategy for lynx reintroduction was to first release a number of lynx within a “core reintroduction area” in southwestern Colorado that biologists regarded as the best potential lynx habitat available in the state. Biologists hoped that over time lynx would not only remain in this area long enough to survive and reproduce, but also disperse on their own into other tracts of suitable habitat throughout the state. To this end, DOW biologists began releasing lynx back into southern Colorado in 1999 (Fig. 1). During 1999−2006, a total of 218 wild-caught lynx from Canada and Alaska were released in this core area.

Most interesting to me was this video on Colorado lynx, full of information about them and their lives, plus lots of photos and videos, and their summer explorations, as well as research on lynx and bark beetles, winter recreation, and snowshoe hare density, with CPW scientist Jake Ivan. If you’ve seen a lynx way outside of its habitat during the summer, you might not be imagining things; they go on long walkabouts (to Idaho, Montana and out east) and come back for winter. It’s amazing to me that the telemetry gear does not interfere with lynx activities.

Here’s a link to my previous post on the CPW/FS winter recreation research. I just noticed I hadn’t posted the paper then, here’s a link to an article and several papers.

*************************************************

For more detail, here’s what the ROD for the new RG Forest Plan says about LCAS (page 29 of the ROD):

Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment
The selected alternative uses direction in the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment Record of
Decision, as amended and modified. The Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment was completed
prior to the spruce beetle infestation and accounts for live, green forested habitat. Standards
VEG S7 (S-TEPC-2) and S-TEPC-3 were added to the land management plan to account for
the increased amount of standing, dead spruce-fir habitat.
The direction incorporates the most recently available information from a study on the use of
habitat by lynx on the Forest (Squires et al. 2018). The direction applies to lynx habitat on
National Forest System lands on the Rio Grande National Forest.
Canada lynx habitat in Colorado primarily occurs in the subalpine and upper montane forest
zones. Lynx show a preference for subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, aspen, and lodgepole
pine forest types. Recent information demonstrates the close relationship of lynx on the
Forest to particular locations within the subalpine forest zone and their use of specialized
forest structure (Ivan et al. 2014, Squires et al. 2018). Other habitats used by reintroduced
lynx locally include spruce-fir/aspen associations and various riparian and riparian-associated
areas dominated by dense willow, particularly during the summer period (Shenk 2009).
The Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment identified four linkage areas on the Forest that
remain important areas of habitat connectivity. Connective habitat in the San Juan Mountains
is essential for facilitating movement of Canada lynx across the landscape. The plan provides
forestwide plan components that protect connectivity.
This direction identifies the high probability lynx use areas for the Forest and clarifies that
VEG S1 and VEG S2 from the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment do not apply in lynx
analysis units outside the high probability lynx use areas. Standard VEG S7 provides
direction for salvage activities that occur in the high probability lynx use areas.
The biological opinion concluded that the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of the land
management plan are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of lynx within the
contiguous United States distinct population segment. Endangered species implementing
regulation (50 CFR 402.14 (i)(6) does not require an incidental take statement for
programmatic level planning. Any incidental take resulting from any action subsequently
authorized, funded, or carried out under the program will be addressed in subsequent section
7 consultation, as appropriate.

30 thoughts on “Southern Rockies (Colorado) Lynx: Disappearing or Stable? LCAS and the RG Plan”

  1. Sharon,

    FWIW: The term “dire straits” comes directly from the Defenders of Wildlife lawsuit, which I have absolutely nothing to do with. A copy of Defenders lawsuit was clearly provided in the original post and is also provided here: https://defenders.org/sites/default/files/2021-11/01_Petition%20for%20Review.pdf

    Please see page 13 of the Defends of Wildlife lawsuit for specific information regarding lynx on the Rio Grande National Forest. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Matthew, I didn’t say you said it, I just quoted from the post. It would be helpful if you would extract the relevant info from the lawsuit, as I did from the RG ROD.

      Reply
  2. Excellent post Sharon. On a more general note, it seems like one of the criticisms in the lawsuits is the lack of sufficient standards and guidelines to protect and recruit habitat for lynx. Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas said at the outset in public meetings he wished to have a plan that provided flexibility to allow adapting with the changing conditions on the land and to new research. Standards and guidelines are at a specificity that can make it difficult for the forest service to adapt management activities to those changing conditions. Environmental groups and industry like to have certainty built into forest plans. The forest service wants flexibility. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court. One side comment: Isn’t it ironic that some of the best lynx habitat on the Rio Grande National Forest is found in old timber sales?

    Reply
    • One problem the way I see it is that while ENGOs and industry would like certainty.. they would need to talk to spruce beetles, mountain pine beetles, fire occurrences, climate change and convince them not to eat, burn, or heat up. It would also be hard to keep new scientific findings from being produced.

      That’s really a systemic problem in my mind with NFMA plans (other than the need for requirements for ESA as in LCAS); info changes faster than plans can. If you want the latest science to be used in a project, a forest plan is usually not helpful and can actually be a hindrance.

      Reply
  3. One of the primary significant threats cited for listing the species was lack of regularoty mechanisms. The implementation of the 2012 planning rule and corresponding increases in management flexibility do not ameliorate that threat. Only the ghost of the LCAS remains.

    Lynx require >50-60% of a home range to be composed of mature multi-aged subalpine forests with complex structure. Although late-regenerating forests do provide high quality hare habitat, GPS collar data show such forests do not provide the best lynx habitat, ostensibly due to low hunt success.

    Compared to frequent fire forests, subalpine forests have been much less affected by fire suppression. Maintaining subalpine forests in a condition that would favor low and moderate severity fire under the current and projected future climate would not result in the historical forest condition at he landscape scale or lynx habitat. Is it possible for lynx to persist in the lower 48 with climate change? I don’t know. We need landscape strategies designed with lynx in mind to determine what is possible.

    Reply
    • Ben, what do you mean by the “ghost of LCAS”?
      My point was that it appears from CPW that the species is holding steady. Even if the lynx habitat is not “the best” they seem to be getting along. My question was simply “if populations are holding steady under old plan and LCAS why would they not under new plan and LCAS?

      Reply
      • What is the LCAS? The original LCAS came out in 2000. The most recent version is from 2013. Recent forest plans have increased flexibility for logging in lynx habitat through tweaks to the LCAS language (see 2018 Colville LRMP vs. 2013 LCAS, subtle changes, but the language is subject to broader interpretation). There have been rumors for the past few years that the lynx team will be developing an updated LCAS. Quite a few new lynx studies have come out since 2013 that would affect forest management. Specifically, new studies have shown how important complex mature forests are compared to late regenerating forests.

        The threats are not stable. A small population that was listed just over 20 years ago and has been made stable as a result of listing does not mean it is resilient. The threat of fire and loss of snow pack are ever-increasing threats. The more area that burns, the less green tree forest is left to log and provide lynx habitat, this is already resulting in increased competition between logging and lynx in some regions.

        Reply
  4. Is the lynx population on the decline? The complaint characterizes the condition as “dire straits” based on assertion that, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) has predicted that lynx may disappear from Colorado altogether in a matter of decades.” That is the perspective required by ESA, and consequently is necessary for federal land management.

    “It also seems like the LCAS (the statewide lynx forest plan amendment), which has been in existence since 2008, would still be in place under the new RG plan.” Here’s what the ROD says: “The selected alternative uses direction in the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment Record of Decision, as amended and modified.” Those last four words are pretty important since the modifications are pretty substantial. It represents a completely different approach to managing lynx than what was originally worked out with the FWS in terms of what kinds of logging restrictions are appropriate for what kinds of areas.

    The Squires study determined where lynx were most likely to be found on the Forest. However, it apparently did not directly address the key science question of whether lynx use of beetle-killed forests has changed in a way that would allow extensive salvage logging without adversely affecting lynx. If anything, it suggests they continue to use the same areas despite the loss of the overstory to beetles. The FS and FWS do not appear to have recognized science that says the death of the overstory has not harmed the understory that is important to lynx, but that salvage logging would. Therefore, removal of protections in such areas was not properly analyzed and is not warranted.

    “Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas said at the outset in public meetings he wished to have a plan that provided flexibility to allow adapting with the changing conditions on the land and to new research.” NFMA was designed to limit flexibility, particularly with respect to plant and animal diversity. It established a forest plan amendment process that requires public participation as part of adaptive management. The Preamble to the 2012 Planning Rule emphasizes this point. The fact that this process takes time and money is not an excuse to try to build illegal exceptions into forest plans.

    Lynx were listed under ESA primarily because of the lack of regulatory mechanisms in national forest plans. Recent comments from the FWS have suggested that the lynx amendments in the northern and southern Rockies could justify delisting the lynx. That is because they were based on the original Lynx Conservation Assessment and Strategy and are consistent with more recent best available science. The strategy adopted by the Rio Grande is not clearly tied to science the way the LCAS is, and adopting less certain and more risky strategies like this in revised forest plans would decrease the likelihood the lynx would be delisted.

    “Ultimately then, it could be argued that anything that disturbs lynx is a threat, and on that basis should be stopped… “ Yes, that’s basically the way ESA works, at least with regard to “federal actions.” So if you can point to a federal action that authorizes recreation, there should be consultation with FWS and possible restrictions.

    Reply
    • Per your paragraph: “’Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas said at the outset in public meetings he wished to have a plan that provided flexibility to allow adapting with the changing conditions on the land and to new research.’ NFMA was designed to limit flexibility, particularly with respect to plant and animal diversity. It established a forest plan amendment process that requires public participation as part of adaptive management. The Preamble to the 2012 Planning Rule emphasizes this point. The fact that this process takes time and money is not an excuse to try to build illegal exceptions into forest plans.”

      One the big problems with the 1982 forest planning regulations was that they were too rigid and required national forests to do too many time consuming and costly plan amendments. This made forest plans anything but adaptive. One of the big drivers for the 2012 Planning Rule was to allow forest plans to be more adaptive, thus the reason forest supervisor Dan Dallas said what he did. Climate change is causing rapid changes to many forest ecosystems. Dallas wanted a plan that was nimble enough to respond to changes in the forest and the best available science without going through the expensive multi-year amendment process. The expense is an important consideration because if the USFS doesn’t have the budget to conduct forest plan amendments, then they may be stuck with not being able to respond in a timely fashion to changing conditions. That may work against the lynx.

      Reply
      • Mike, I’m not sure that one of the ideas behind the 2012 rule was to make forest plans “more adaptive”.. either that or that’s not how it turned out in practice.

        What aspects of the 2012 Rule do you think makes plans easier to amend/change?

        Reply
        • I’m not sure who you were directing that question to, but I will admit that the product did’t really live up to the intent with regard to making changes in plans. The “administrative corrections” provision that allows some kinds of changes without amendments was one small improvement. The redefinition of “significant amendment” to refer to any amendment requiring an EIS may have reduced a barrier to making amendments. However, they were not able to come up with anything that really made amendments easier to do. They left open the possibility that some amendments could be done using a CE, and there was a CE developed for this, but I think it had some political troubles. (They didn’t like my suggestion that amendments to protect the environment (especially wildlife) could be done without NEPA.)

          Reply
          • I’m not sure that that’s political, I remember CEQ lawyers telling us that environmental impacts had to be analyzed whether they were beneficial or not.

            Reply
            • In my opinion, based on some research into this specific question, that’s at least a power grab by CEQ and at worst a political weakening of NEPA by turning it against itself.

              Reply
      • While I agree the intent was to make forest plans more adaptive (since I helped write the 2012 Rule), there is nothing in the Rule that relieves the FS of responsibility of providing the ecological conditions needed for at-risk species. A forest plan that allows flexibility to not do that would not comply with NFMA. That would include a forest plan that says “we’ll figure out how to provide for these species later on a project-by-project basis.” I know that forest supervisors would like to have plans that don’t commit them to anything, but that’s not what Congress told them to do. More importantly they need to commit to NOT doing anything that would threaten at-risk species. I’d love to hear an example of how an existing forest plan is harming a species to a degree that it must be changed more quickly than a forest plan amendment could do.

        Reply
        • I will certainly defer to your expertise for all things concerning the intent and reality of 2012 Planning Rule. I’m new to this site, so I’m just getting my bearings. Also let me say up front I’m a centrist in that I believe in keeping all the pieces (and processes) to maximize the potential to sustain native species while also providing natural resources to provide for human “needs,” including livelihoods, as much as possible. Everything we use and eat come from something and somewhere (I know you know this). With that in mind, I think you are correct and actually my last statement was backwards. It is more likely that limiting the quick adaptability of a plan is more likely to harm people’s livelihoods than native species. Could this scenario be real? This is not a lynx example, but it seems like a real possibility on the Rio Grande National Forest and others. A forest plan directs the forest to ensure there is no overlap between domestic sheep and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to limit the potential spread of disease to wild herds. This direction has the potential of putting some sheep ranchers out of business. Then, a vaccine is developed for domestic sheep that eliminates the risk of domestic sheep carrying the pathogens, but since the plan says they must be separated could an anti-grazing organization sue the forest service for not following through with separating the herds even though there is now an additional solution?

          Reply
          • Thanks for joining the discussion, Mike.

            If the plan says permits will be written to maintain separation, then the FS could be sued for not doing it, regardless of any science. So yes, the result could be unnecessary protection of bighorns at the expense of potential ranchers and lamb shanks. In this example they could not currently graze in these locations, so I don’t see a lot of harm that would justify a case for “flexibility” or urgency.

            I would actually be ok with a plan standard that says it would not apply in a specified situation – in this case the development of a vaccine (exceptions to standards are not unusual). What are problematic are plan components that leave unconfined discretion to choose whether or not to do something so the effects can’t be evaluated.

            Most of what is going on with lynx on the Rio Grande is that standards are being removed or relaxed to allow more timber harvest, especially salvage logging. Maybe what Dan Dallas meant to say was that he needed flexibility to find enough board feet to meet his targets.

            Reply
            • Thanks Jon. I have heard a couple arguments for wanting to relax or remove standards related to timber harvest in the spruce-fir zone. Engelmann spruce is the primary commercial timber species on the Rio Grande NF and a couple of the smaller local mills rely heavily on RGNF timber. When mills go out of business, it removes a tool for managing forests. Keeping those mills busy will buy time for growth of Dfir and ponderosa pine in the montane zone, which the mills could then use. Also, Dallas is a Type 1 incident commander and believes removing the dead timber removes what will eventually become heavy ground fuels that when burned under the right conditions increase the chance of high severity burns. Of course, pretty much any large burn in spruce-fir, regardless of severity, is bad for lynx habitat. Spruce and fir seedlings and saplings aren’t exactly fire resistant. So, when it comes to lynx, the fire argument falls apart especially when considering the benefit of downed dead spruce for providing shade for new seedlings. Realistically, this will probably become a moot point in a few years as the spruce have been dead for so long they are losing their commercial saw timber value.

              Reply
              • I don’t think much weight should be given to what anyone thinks mill owners might decide to do. However, the fire arguments should have been included in the record by both the FS and FWS if they want to use them to make the case that these changes aren’t bad for lynx.

                Reply
            • Jon, I don’t know why you’d assume that Dan Dallas is making these decisions about targets.. I don’t assume the worst of intentions about the plaintiffs. I think people see things differently and have different experiences (as Mike points out, being an IC today is a very different experience than most of us have, including lawyers for ENGOs). He’s also been the Supe on the RG since before I retired, so it’s not like (as my old planning friend DeAnn Zwight used to say) he just “fell off the turnip truck.”

              Mike, thanks for participating… sounds like you are more familiar with the details. I don’t think we should dismiss the small mills.. especially when the state and feds are spending millions to start companies that use material from fuel treatments..

              Reply
              • You start to question motives when the facts don’t support them. If “flexibility to allow adapting with the changing conditions on the land and to new research” is the alleged motive, there’s nothing there to suggest that plan amendments wouldn’t do that job as envisioned in NFMA.

                Reply
                • The Rio Grande National Forest is a poor forest. Plan amendments require personnel, time and funding and certainly there are times they are necessary. But, if a plan can be written in a way that allows responsible adaptability to changing information and conditions without going through an amendment process, I’m all for it. That’s how I want my tax dollars spent.

                  Reply
                  • I’ve never heard of being “poor” (or how someone wants their tax dollars spent either) working as an excuse to avoid the requirements of the law – in this case to make plan-level decisions that protect at-risk species, and to include the public when they propose to do something different on a project.

                    Reply
                    • In no way am I suggesting the public should not be involved or that the plan should get crosswise with the planning rule’s intent. In fact I am a strong advocate for public participation in both the forest planning process and project level NEPA process. What I am saying, and I didn’t do a very good job in my brevity, is I would like to see adaptive management built into plans so they don’t have to go through a plan amendment process, unless it is absolutely necessary. I think a lot can be done with the project level NEPA process. This way FS staff is spending their time and money working on projects rather than plan amendments before they can then work on projects. It’s a matter of efficiency. If the RGNF plan doesn’t pass legal muster, and that may be up to the courts to decide (if it isn’t settled out of court), then it was done incorrectly. We will have to wait and see how this all plays out. But as a taxpayer, and I bet the majority of taxpayers would agree, I want my money being used efficiently while also meeting the intent of the law.

  5. Yes, there is a ski area by the name of Wolf Creek that is partially on the RG, as I understand it. So that would be authorized via a permit.

    For us ESA-impaired folks, if the RG changed the restrictions in SLRA would they need to consult on the Plan? Did they do that?

    Reply
    • They did consult on the revised forest plan, which included the changes in lynx management. The lawsuit says they ignored important information in the FS BA and the FWS BO used for that consultation.

      There is another potential issue out there related to the SRLA/NRLA. These were range-wide strategies that were originally consulted on as a whole. At some point, changes made by individual national forests could amount to something that should trigger reinitiation of consultation on the original SRLA/NRLA decisions (as modified) at that scale.

      Reply
        • The way it is generally argued is 1) the FS gave bad information to the FWS or didn’t give them good information, 2) the FWS used the information given to them by the FS, and 3) the FS relied on the conclusion of the FWS, which the FS should have known was based on bad information. Both the FS and FWS are sued for violating ESA in this case.

          Reply
    • Wolf Creek Ski Area is mostly on the Rio Grande National Forest. Recently, they expanded onto the San Juan NF. The other issue for that area that may impact the lynx is the proposed development of the Village at Wolf Creek which would sit on a private inholding adjoining the ski area (different owners). The owner of the inholding is seeking year-round access across NFS land. Two different access scenarios have been approved by the RGNF and both are locked up in court. One of the concerns expressed by the plaintiffs is the probably impact of the development on lynx.

      Reply
  6. Speaking as someone who actually funded the reintroduction and continuing monitoring and studies (CPW salaries are paid with hunting license fees) frankly who cares.

    The IUCN lists the Canada Lynx as a species of “least concern” like your house cat. Defenders (of certain kinds) of Wildlife consider every carnivore to be in dire straights. They’re full of bull hoowie, always have been, attract every nut case law school graduate who couldn’t get a real job and will work for peanuts.

    The range of the Canada Lynx, big surprise coming, is almost entirely across the breadth of Canada. Who’d of thunk it. Also Alaska, a combined area about the size of the lower 48 and probably bigger. To say colorado is the extreme fringe of the lynx range is putting it mildly. When biologists figured out that they’d restored just about every mammal possible to Colorado someone had the idea it would be cool to try the lynx, so we did, and here we are.

    Not that I’m pro logging, and ski resorts should be shut down, (I just can’t imagine a more carbon intensive industry, dirty coal maybe) but to waste any time with lawsuits over the lynx is just plain nutty. It was reintroduced for fun, not to get all het up about. I mean the typical ski resort visitor pumps out 50 tons of C02 per year. I worry a lot more about the Canada lynx surviving in Canada at the rate we are going. We’ve lots of pressing issues in the US, the Canada Lynx ain’t one of em.

    Reply

Leave a Comment