Friday, August 11, 2006

Creating a lynx buffet in Colorado

By Scott Condon
Aspen, CO, Times
August 10, 2006

Where there are bunnies in Colorado's mountains, there are often lynx, so the U.S. Forest Service and Aspen Skiing Co. are teaming on a project to make part of Burnt Mountain more like a buffet table for both animals.

A 43-acre stand of mostly mature spruce and fir trees will be thinned out, and the forest floor will be scarified in a manner that spurs regeneration of trees. Snowshoe hares depend largely on conifer needles for food in the winter, so the idea is to provide them with more forage, according to Kelly Colfer, a principal owner of Western Bionomics LLC, a consultant to the Skico.

By improving snowshoe hare habitat, the Skico and Forest Service hope to make the area more inviting to lynx, a reclusive predator reintroduced to the state starting in 1999.

"Lynx rely heavily on snowshoe hares as prey; consequently, good snowshoe hare habitat translates to good lynx forage habitat," Colfer wrote in a description of the project.

Jim Stark, winter sports administrator in the Forest Service's Aspen district, said the Colorado Division of Wildlife's tracking of lynx via radio collars shows they have passed through the part of Burnt Mountain where the habitat will be enhanced. The lynx population in Colorado is holding at about 200, according to the wildlife division. Most of the animals are in the southern mountains, but they have been tracked to the Independence Pass area and south of Aspen.

The stand of spruce and fir trees targeted for the local project is on the far east edge of the Snowmass Ski Area permit boundary, between Snowmass and West Buttermilk. Several Forest Service experts, Skico officials and consultants, and a reporter visited the area last week. Although the site is within the ski area permit boundary, the Skico doesn't plan to use it because it is relatively flat. Stark said he rarely has seen ski or snowboard tracks leading into that part of Burnt Mountain because it would require walking out.

So a small bulldozer will head to the site from the Elk Camp section of Snowmass in late August or early September. A crew will chop down some of the larger trees, and the 'dozer will topple others to ensure more sunlight penetrates the canopy. It won't be a clear-cut, officials said. A brush rake attached to the bulldozer's blade will uproot and clear vegetation from the ground to improve regeneration of conifer seeds.

The Skico's consultant and foresters with the Forest Service discussed the work in the field to make sure they agreed on the targeted density of conifer trees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also part of the team.

The Skico was obligated to undertake a project that enhances lynx winter forage habitat under conditions of federal approval for various other projects at Snowmass. The site on Burnt Mountain was selected because of its ideal conditions and accessibility, according to Colfer.

Once regeneration of conifers takes place and more bunnies are foraging in the area during winters, it will benefit lynx that are passing through and roaming the central mountains, Colfer said. It isn't intended make them settle on that section of Burnt Mountain. They tend to establish territory over a much greater distance, he said.

Scott Condon's e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

http://www.aspentimes.com/article/20060810/NEWS/108100060

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