By: Isabel Lisle (Communications Manager) 11/28/22
On a bright sunny fall day in October, a group of intrepid explorers braved the trek up to 30 Mile Campground in the Rio Grande National Forest. A colorful array of yellow and orange leaves blanketed the forest floor as the group gathered in the campground atrium to listen to retired wildlife biologist Randy Ghormley speak about the elusive lynx. The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) organized the retreat to engage community members and celebrate the importance of an endangered species that inhabits our public lands. Randy took the group on a storytelling adventure, teaching us about lynx habitat, diet, and the reintroduction techniques used to help the lynx population rebound in the Rio Grande National Forest.
Randy explained that lynx are large-pawed cats with tufted ears, long legs, and a broad short head. The tip of their bobbed tail looks as if it was dipped in ink and their ear tufts are larger than a bobcats. They are solitary animals and usually hunt and travel alone at night. In the winter, their large paws act like snowshoes to help them navigate across deep snow drifts. They hunt the snowshoe hare, small rodents, and unsuspecting ground birds during the winter months up in the mountains of the Rio Grande National Forest.
As Randy continued our tour along the glittering blue Rio Grande Reservoir, the third highest major reservoir in Colorado, he took the opportunity to describe critical lynx habitat. The Rio Grande National Forest provides core habitat for the lynx in Colorado, he says. The lynx lives above 9,000 feet, and they prefer spruce fir forests with a thick understory and many different sized trees. The snowshoe hare, a staple of their diet, also likes this kind of habitat. In fact, the Spruce Bark beetle-kill trees that litter the forest floor actually provide the perfect habitat for the lynx, Randy clarifies. By 2013, a spruce beetle outbreak impacted 85% of the mature spruce-fir forests on the Rio Grande National Forest. Even though the forest canopy is 90% dead, the spruce-fir forests provide some of the highest quality lynx habitat in the state (Rocky Mountain Research Station, 2015). Contrary to popular belief, a forest of dead trees provide quality habitat for a variety of different species, including the lynx and the snowshoe hare.
The group began peering around the fallen trees to see if they could spot a lynx. Between 1999 and 2006, Randy helped (along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife) to reintroduce 218 lynx into the San Juan Mountains and the Rio Grande National forest. In 2003, the first kittens born to reintroduced lynx were discovered. As of 2009, a total of 126 lynx kittens are known to have been born in Colorado and use the Rio Grande National Forest as a primary habitat area (Lynx Reintroduction Program, 2014).
The importance of conserving lynx and the beetle-kill forests cannot be understated. Lynx are among the most endangered felines in North America, with only a few hundred animals suspected to remain in the lower 48 states (Conservation Northwest, 2021). Recently, the court rejected a development proposal to build a village on Wolf Creek Pass (in the Rio Grande National Forest) that would have direct consequences on the lynx, the watershed, and the fragile ecosystems of the Rio Grande National Forest. The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, along with Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and Wilderness Workshop, sued the Forest Service for granting access to a real estate developer who intended to build a city for 8,000 people atop Wolf Creek Pass. Chris Canaly explains that “construction of the Village at Wolf Creek would dramatically impact the entire region, disrupting key movement corridors and habitat for threatened lynx, drastically increasing traffic, and irrevocably changing the character of the separately owned Wolf Creek Ski Area.” By fighting for the lynx we are also fighting for clean air, water, and healthy ecosystems in the San Luis Valley.
Even though we didn’t find any lynx, we ended our beautiful day by indulging in s’mores around the campfire with some excellent storytelling from Chris Canaly and Randy Ghormley, who exude a deep love for the San Luis Valley and all of the different animals that reside here. Thank you to everyone who participated and made this retreat possible!