Nonprofit Sees Threat to Lynx in Fed Project

     DENVER (CN) – A federal vegetation management project on more than 10,000 acres of Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest would harm the region’s already endangered lynx population, greens claim in a lawsuit.
     The complaint filed by WildEarth Guardians seeks to stop a 10-year vegetation treatment plan, dubbed the Tennessee Creek Project, that would mostly take place in the Leadville Ranger District of the national forest.
     The project authorizes a specific acreage that would undergo several potentially disruptive treatments, including 2,000 acres of logging, 2,370 acres of clear cutting, 765 acres of commercial thinning, and 6,040 acres of prescribed fire.
     There would also be 20 miles of temporary roads constructed, and the opening of 1.5 miles of previously closed roads. There are 9,480 acres of lynx habitat within the project’s boundaries.     
     “One of the biggest problems with the project is that the forest service essentially drew a big circle on the map, and said ‘we’re gonna log in this circle,'” John Mellgren, an attorney for WildEarth and a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center, said in an interview. “But there’s a lot of very sensitive lynx habitat within that circle.” WildEarth Guardians worries about the fragility of Colorado’s lynx population. In the late 1990s, approximately 200 lynx were released in the San Juan Mountains, where they underwent a decade of meticulous monitoring to insure a successful reintroduction into their natural environment.
     Though these cats successfully settled into their new home by 2010, ensuring a verified lynx presence in all of Colorado’s national forests, the lynx remain an endangered species, and only 100 to 120 of the original lynx population remains in Colorado.
     The project, which was proposed in 2012, relies on a biological assessment by Colorado’s Forest Service to assess any damage to the lynx population that could result from their decade-long vegetation control.

     “This agency is asking for a blank slate to get permissions to get very intensive logging across very large landscapes,” Kevin Mueller, the Utah-Southern Rockies Conservation Manager of WildEarth Guardians, says. “If I lived in Leadville, I would be outraged.”
     Uncle Sam allegedly did not make its assessment available to the public until the objection deadline for the Tennessee Creek Project had already passed. Afterward, the Forest Service announced its determination that the Tennessee Creek Project is not likely to harm the lynx living within the project’s land.
     “The majority of lands proposed in this project are not located in lynx habitat,” Jeni Windorski, the wildlife biologist who authored the biological assessment, says in the document. “Therefore, their influence on lynx is limited to impacts to nearby small, isolated, or peripheral stands of potential habitat and potential disturbance of lynx that may be traveling through the area.”
     WildEarth, however, adamantly asserts that the Tennessee Creek Project would negatively affect the lynx’ winter foraging habitat, and the lynx’ denning habitat – the latter of which would be affected for 100 years after the project’s implementation. Over 2,000 acres would become an unsuitable habitat for the lynx, resulting in a negative 30-year impact on the lynx in the Tennessee Pass and other areas.
     “Logging this kind of occupied habitat – it’s not going to be adequate,” Mueller said in an interview. “It’s just not appropriate.”
     “We will hold the agency accountable,” Mueller added. “We hope to nip this in the bud.”
     Leadville District Ranger Tamara Conner, who signed a Finding of No Significant Impact for the project and is named as a defendant in WildEarth’s lawsuit, was unavailable for comment.

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