By: JUDITH KOHLER - Associated Press Writer
DENVER (AP) -- A revised plan for managing the elusive and threatened lynx in the southern Rockies still includes provisions that environmentalists fear would jeopardize the cat's habitat and has revived claims that politics are trumping science.
The draft environmental impact statement released this week updates one from 2004 to include the White River National Forest along with other national forests in Colorado and the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming.
U.S. Forest Service officials said the goal is to make lynx management consistent across the region, where wildlife officials and advocates hope the long-haired, big-pawed mountain cat makes a comeback. Trapping, poisoning and development wiped the lynx out in Colorado by the early 1970s.
Critics said the revised plan allows too many intrusions into lynx habitat for logging and other activities, and they blamed political pressure.
"All they did was take a really bad plan and add the White River National Forest to it," said Jacob Smith, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems.
Smith said the 2004 plan drew from sound science but threw in "sweeping exemptions."
Last year, a top official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, overturned the White River forest's own rules for managing the federally protected lynx in the 2.3 million-acre forest, Colorado's largest.
Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary David Tenny said he rejected the White River plan in part to keep it consistent with the overall management strategy that was in the works for other national forests in the region.
Environmentalists and some state and county elected officials objected, saying Tenny's action undermined efforts to help the lynx population recover.
Colorado wildlife officials have been trying to restore the lynx to state since 1999 by releasing cats captured in Canada and Alaska. An estimated 200 are still alive, and earlier this year, state biologists reported the first documented case of a Colorado-born lynx giving birth, boosting hopes the population will become self-sustaining.
Smith said the Colorado restoration will be threatened if the Forest Service allows too many exemptions from habitat protections.
"Everyone has worked so hard on recovering the lynx. The one missing piece is the habitat," Smith said.
There will likely be changes to the final environmental impact statement, which will be written after a comment period closes Feb. 17, said Lois Pfeffer, an environmental coordinator with the Forest Service in Wyoming.
An example is the need to update information on how much of the forest has been ravaged by tree-killing bark beetles. The spread of the insects has reduced the habitat suitable for snowshoe hares, the main prey of lynx, Pfeffer said.
"The intention is to provide habitat for the species to maintain them over time," said Pfeffer, the federal interagency team leader on the project.
The Forest Service's recommended management plan would protect the lynx while allowing intrusion into their habitat to fight fires or cut trees to reduce wildfire risk.
The recommended plan also responds to concerns about restrictions on new snowmobile trails and provides flexibility for local issues, according to the draft environmental impact statement.
Colorado was left out of land proposed last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical lynx habitat. The agency said Colorado population isn't natural and it isn't clear if it will be self-sustaining.
Last week, Fish and Wildlife designated 1,841 square miles in three states as critical lynx habitat, far less than the 18,000 square miles proposed. The designation subjects the land to more federal oversight.
Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tim Holeman said state biologists are reviewing the revised federal lynx plan and will submit comments.
"While we'll look at it, I don't think it will encourage us or discourage us from what we're already doing," Holeman said.