Las Vegas Sun

November 12, 2019

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Critics say ski area plan threatens rare butterfly

Mount Charleston blue butterfly

Corey Kallstrom/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Mount Charleston blue butterfly is known only to exist in the upper reaches of the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas.

RENO — Conservationists are raising concerns about an expansion plan at a southern Nevada ski resort they say overlaps with habitat for an endangered butterfly.

The plans include miles of new mountain biking, skiing and hiking trails along with a zip line, mountain coaster and expanded parking lot, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

A new building with food, beverages and equipment rental also is included in Lee Canyon Ski Area's master development plan intended to keep up with growing demand at the 785-acre (317-hectare) resort that opened in 1964. Since 1970, Clark County's population has grown from about 273,000 to more than 2.2 million

Opponents say the improvements are a threat to the Mount Charleston blue butterfly, which was listed as endangered in 2013.

"They are going to crisscross the habitat with mountain bike trails," said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "That will irreparably fragment the habitat. The blue butterfly lives its entire life cycle within a very small radius."

The butterfly lives in the Spring Mountains, the same range as the ski area, and has endured threats to its habitat ranging from wildfires to invasive species to climate change.

Proponents say trail development will reduce tree cover in a way that helps the butterfly, which needs habitat with openings in the tree canopy.

"We feel positive about the potential new trails offer to the Mount Charleston blue butterfly's habitat," marketing director Jim Seely said of the project, which would adversely affect with about 19 acres (9 hectares) of butterfly habitat, according to environmental documents.

The proposal is outlined in a draft Record of Decision and Final Environmental Impact Statement the U.S. Forest Service issued this week.

The documents kick off a 45-day objection period, which is limited to people who have already formally commented on the project.

Donnelly criticized the timing of the release of the documents in advance of a formal analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of how it might affect the butterfly.

Jonathan Stein, the Las Vegas-based project leader for the Forest Service, said Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service workers have been working in tandem throughout the process.

He said the Fish and Wildlife analysis is expected to be complete before the close of the objection period and is unlikely to contain any surprises.

"We are in constant discussion with them," Stein said. "We would hope they would have told us if there is anything they find kind of glaring."

The project is scheduled to begin in 2020 and is expected to take 10 years to complete.