By Bob Berwyn
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY — Loggers will face tighter restrictions on clear-cutting and thinning as the U.S. Forest Service implements a new rule to protect threatened lynx.
“It changes the mindset within the Forest Service on how they do vegetation management,” said Kurt Broderdorp, a federal biologist responsible for making sure lynx can thrive in Colorado and the rest of the southern Rockies.
The new rule is part of a sweeping amendment to forest plans for the region, released by the Forest Service last week after eight years of preparation.
It’s subject to a 45-day appeal period, and conservation groups may challenge the agency based on what they say are significant loopholes in the conservation plan. In initial reviews, conservation advocates said the rule is an improvement from an earlier draft, especially with regard to timber management.
But the latest version waters down some protections for lynx by whittling away strict forest-plan standards — considered mandatory rules for forest managers — and replacing them with guidelines, which don’t have quite the same regulatory clout.
The same conservation groups that initially forced the federal government to list lynx as threatened will carefully scrutinize the latest Forest Service plan and potentially challenge the draft rule if they believe it’s lacking, said Dave Gaillard, of the Predator Conservation
“We’d like to see something more over-arching,” said Page Bonaker, a staff biologist with the Center for Native Ecosystems, calling on the federal government to add parts of Colorado to the areas deemed critical habitat for lynx.
Timber versus habitat
Throughout its history, the Forest Service generally has based its planning on how to get the most commercial value from forests.
Now, the agency must temper that desire to maximize timber yield with the need to make sure there is adequate cover for lynx and enough food for snowshoe hares, the cats’ main prey.
As it considers logging projects, the Forest Service will have to make sure that a certain amount of tree cover is maintained for lynx and snowshoe hares, with strict caps on clear-cutting and thinning.
“You can’t just think about this (the forest) as a crop. It’s wildlife habitat,” said Broderdorp, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Junction. “You have to think about that, as opposed to just trying to grow bigger or better trees.”
There are exceptions for projects aimed at reducing the wildfire danger near homes, said Forest Service biologist Nancy Warren.
But in other areas, the agency will have to leave enough young stands of lodgepole pines and other trees to provide food and cover for snowshoe hares.
Thinning of dense stands also will have to be delayed until the lower branches are out of reach of snowshoe hares, which depend on the green branches for winter food, she said.
The Forest Service has recognized that large-scale vegetation management is the action most likely to affect the survival of lynx across broad landscapes, Warren said. The rule also spells out limits on logging in higher-elevation spruce and fir stands.
“It’s become clear that multi-story spruce and fir stands are very important for lynx,” Warren said. As a result, the agency will conduct only “uneven-age stand management” in that forest type. That means there won’t be widespread logging, but selected removal of small groups of trees, taking care to maintain enough cover for lynx dens and daytime hiding places.
Ski areas and other winter recreation won’t be affected in a big way by the new rule, Broderdorp said.
“We’ve kind of pulled back with regard to recreation,” he said. Essentially, the federal agencies have decided that the existing impacts to lynx from skiing and snowmobiling don’t threaten the cats’ overall survival, he said.
There is less concern that a proliferation of compacted snow trails put lynx at a competitive disadvantage with coyotes and other predators.
“We’ve learned that competing predators are there year round,” Broderdorp said. The new regional rule still discourages creation of new winter trails unless they are concentrated in an area in an effort to leave other pockets of important habitat undisturbed, Warren said.
Other guidelines in the rule address nighttime grooming and night skiing, as well as other activities at resorts.
Those guidelines are “suggested practices” for the Forest Service, and aren’t as ironclad as mandated standards, Broderdorp explained. But the agency is still bound to recognize that the guidelines are important conservation measures.
“You better have a darn good reason to show why you’re deviating from the guidelines,” he said.
“There is still a recognition that there are areas where impacts are going to be significant,” Broderdorp said, referring to the concentrated use in forests around major resorts.
But the belief is those impacts are not going to threaten the existence of lynx across the cats’ broader range, he said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org