At the heart of a $12 million arson attack at the nation's biggest ski resort is a small wildcat with long, tufted ears that hasn't been seen in Colorado in a quarter-century.
A group called Earth Liberation Front (ELF) has claimed responsibility for the fires that leveled three buildings and damaged four ski lifts at the top of Vail Mountain early Monday, saying it did it "on behalf of the lynx."
"The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state," the group said. "Putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated."
Wildlife experts and environmentalists agree that lynx could live around Vail, high in the Colorado Rockies some 100 miles west of Denver.
But would it?
Lawsuits to stop Vail's expansion into 885 acres of backcountry have centered on its negative impact on the lynx and have largely targeted the posh resort, because it is the last place the lynx was seen.
"The fact that this is the last place they were seen doesn't mean this is the place they prefer," said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Wildlife. "Things have changed in Colorado since then."
Start with Vail. The ski resort is the nation's busiest, and construction projects continue to climb higher on the mountainside, encroaching on the cat's preferred habitat of dense fir trees and cutting the numbers of its favorite meal, the snowshoe hare.
"If you're going to move animals from one place to another, you've got to make sure habitat is protected indefinitely," said Marc Bekoff, a biology professor at the University of Colorado. "I don't know if that can happen in Vail. It would shock me if places that are known for development would stop on behalf of an animal."
Instead, efforts to reintroduce the animal to Colorado have focused on the San Juan Mountains to the south and the Gunnison and White River national forests west of Vail. These areas have more of the right habitat the lynx needs. And fewer roads. And fewer people.
About 40 lynx are scheduled to be moved to Colorado from Canada this January or February, the first move in a plan that would relocate 100 animals over the next three years, Malmsbury said. Both the lynx and the wolverine, which is also scheduled to be reintroduced, are native to the state but are not thought to live in Colorado in abundant numbers, if at all.
A federal court recently turned down a request for an injunction to halt Vail's construction project from an environmental coalition that includes the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club. In their lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the groups argued, among other things, that the service had not considered the project's impact on wildlife.
Jasper Carlton, executive director of the of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, which has fought for the lynx to be designated as an endangered species, aid state wildlife officials have dropped the ball.
"The last place the lynx liked, the last place they were found, is on the back slopes of Vail," he said. "If we make a decision to have that destroyed, what does that tell us about the agency's commitment to protect suitable habitat?"