Monday, March 19, 2012

Backcountry skiers creating snow-packed "highways" to detriment of lynx

The 25,000 skiers a year who climb snowpacked paths to backcountry huts tend to be environmentally conscious, "leave no trace" travelers who minimize their impact. But as population growth and the recreation industry drive demand to install more of the super-popular huts in Colorado's mountains, U.S. Forest Service officials are blocking construction. A new theory holds that skiers may be disturbing high-country ecosystems by creating compacted snow "highways" that lure unwanted predators — coyotes, cougars and bobcats — into otherwise isolated areas to hunt snowshoe hares. That could be a problem, foresters say, because secluded timberline snowfields are the home of lynx, the protected tuft-eared wildcats that government biologists are nurturing back from the brink of extinction. Snowshoe hares are their winter food supply. "In a natural setting, with no skiers or other human-caused compaction, those predators (coyotes, cougars, bobcats) sink in and can't forage very high," said Mike Kenealy, a natural-resources specialist who manages hut permits in the White River National Forest. Now an opportunistic coyote can follow skier tracks right to the hares. "When you've got other critters eating your food source, then there's not enough food for lynx to consume. That's the crux of the issue," Kenealy said. "If there's no food around, lynx aren't going to be there."...more

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