AWR Blog

Lynx Protection could Restrict Trails for Snowmobiling

by James Hagengruber
Spokesman Review
January 24, 2004

Only one or two Canada lynx are believed to still roam the mountains of North Idaho.

The Forest Service hopes to protect these elusive cats, and others in the region’s high-elevation forests, by limiting the expansion of new, groomed snowmobile trails and discouraging certain forest thinning projects in lynx habitat.

The proposal is aimed at bringing back the lynx by conserving 18.5 million acres of their habitat in Idaho, as well as in Wyoming, Montana and parts of Utah.

Washington’s lynx, including a population in the Okanagon Highlands believed to be one of the healthiest in the Lower 48, are not covered by the plan. Lynx habitat conservation measures are being included in the individual forest plan revision process now under way for the Okanagon, Colville and Wenatchee national forests, said Bob Naney, a Forest Service biologist in Twisp, Wash.

The 430-page proposed Northern Rockies Lynx Amendment was released last week. The public has until April 15 to comment on the plan’s five alternatives for protecting lynx. The final version is expected to be ready in fall, according to a statement from the Forest Service.

Until recently, lynx have received little legal protection. Lawsuits pushed the federal government to give the animals protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. The proposed lynx amendment would require national forests in the region to do more work to preserve lynx habitat, said Jon Haber, a Forest Service planner in Missoula who leads the agency’s lynx amendment team.

“We need to take some action now,” Haber said.

If the remaining habitat for lynx can be protected, their population levels should increase, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bryon Holt of Spokane. Holt was part of a team of federal scientists that developed recommendations for conserving lynx.

“Given what we know about lynx, there’s plenty of habitat out there for them,” Holt said. “As long as we can protect their habitat, they’ll do fine.”

The lynx plan preferred by the Forest Service is similar to recommendations from Holt and the other scientists, but its language is more vague and relies more on guidelines than hard-fast rules.

Environmental groups are troubled by this and say the Forest Service proposal is toothless. The plan merely discourages activities that harm lynx, rather than setting clear standards for protection, said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies of Missoula.

“This isn’t solving it at all,” Garrity said. “The guidelines are meaningless.”

For most people, seeing a lynx in the wild is about as likely as spotting a sasquatch. The solitary, tufted-ear cats typically live deep in the forest at elevations above 3,500 feet. They weigh about 20 pounds, which is bigger than a bobcat, but have long legs and feet nearly as big as a cougar.

These large feet give lynx an advantage in deep snow over competing predators, such as coyotes and bobcats, said Tim Layser, a Forest Service wildlife biologist from Priest Lake. “That large foot acts like a snowshoe,” said Layser, who has actually spotted a lynx in the wild in North Idaho.

Plowed roads and groomed snowmobile trails are believed to take away some of the natural advantage given to lynx, Layser said. The hard-packed snow makes it easier for other predators to hunt the main food source for lynx: snowshoe hare.

The federal government wants to discourage the grooming of additional snowmobile trails. About 4,500 miles of groomed trail crisscross lynx habitat in the northern Rockies, including about 1,200 miles in North Idaho, according to the Forest Service.

One option in the proposed lynx amendment is banning any expansion of the current network of groomed trails. The Forest Service is pushing for softer language to simply discourage, but not ban, new trails.

Any talk of restrictions is likely to anger snowmobilers. But if the existing trail system is preserved, the proposed lynx plan would be fine with Wade Coldirons, general manager of the Inn at Priest Lake. The hotel depends on snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.

“It would be perfectly acceptable in my mind,” Coldirons said.

More research needs to be done to determine the effect groomed trails have on the threatened lynx, said Joan Dickerson, a member of the Forest Service team that developed the lynx amendment.

Perhaps the most comprehensive ongoing research is being conducted in northwest Montana near Seeley Lake, Dickerson said. The studies have shown the local coyote population wasn’t eating many showshoe hare.

“They were eating deer, mostly dead deer. They really didn’t compete,” Dickerson said.

Giving a boost to snowshoe hare populations is central to helping lynx, according to the amendment. This is best accomplished by ensuring there is enough young, thick forest to provide hiding and feeding areas for the hares. Thick, young forests, however, are precisely what worries fire managers.

“It’s one of those balancing acts,” Dickerson said.

The proposed lynx amendment would not prevent fuel reduction projects near communities or individual homes, Dickerson said. Thinning projects deeper in the forest could be halted, though.

Even if hare populations are boosted, there’s no guarantee the lynx numbers will rebound, Dickerson said. This is already apparent in North Idaho.

“There’s quite a few bunnies in North Idaho but there’s not many lynx,” Dickerson said.

Early trapping records show lynx were once relatively abundant in the region’s thick forests. Since 2000, there have been four verified lynx sightings in North Idaho, according to Forest Service records.

“In North Idaho, lynx are very rare,” said Holt, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We suspect there’s probably one or two lynx in North Idaho.”

The proposed Northern Rockies Lynx Amendment can be viewed at: www.fs.dec.us/r1/planning/lynx.html

The Forest Service is taking comments on the proposal until April 15.
A final decision on the lynx amendment is expected late in 2004.

Email comments to: comments-northern-regional-office@fs.fed.us
Specify Northern Rockies Lynx Amendment in the subject line.

Written comments may be sent to:
Northern Rockies Lynx Amendment
Northern Region Headquarter
P.O. Box 7669
Missoula, MT 59807

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