The Comeback Cat

Lynx Reintroduction Makes Progress

By: Deb Dion

The year was 1973. The Telluride ski area was still in its infancy, running chairlifts for the first time. The Endangered Species Act was also new, restricting logging, mining and even recreation to help protect animals whose habitat was rapidly disappearing. And the last known lynx in Colorado was found dead, snared in a hunter’s steel trap near Vail, too late for the promised protection. Now fast forward to the mid-90s and a group of wildlife officials sitting around a campfire with a politically controversial idea: resurrecting Lynx canadensis in Colorado.

Capturing the elusive cats in the wildernesses of Alaska and Canada for release in the San Juan Mountains would prove a much easier task than capturing the hearts and minds of the program’s adversaries. Opposition came from all sides, from the Colorado Woolgrowers Association to ski area developers, worried that the felines would prey on sheep and that preserving habitat would curtail development plans.

There were concerns, too, that the newly crowded mountain landscape would no longer provide adequate habitat for the lynx, known to wander close to 100 kilometers to mate and hunt. The concerns were validated when, in the spring of 1999, three of the first four Canadian lynx released shortly after their capture starved to death, and the fourth was retrieved in poor health.

The deaths were a lesson for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, who did not falter but, instead, fattened the next group of captured cats before setting them free. “I am constantly reminded that predators must be in top physical form to survive. They must be good hunters and know where to seek out their prey,” said Tanya Shenk, CDOW lynx researcher. “Any illness or injury that keeps them from catching prey results in their ultimate demise.”

Finding their primary prey, snowshoe hare, was not the only challenge for the lynx. In all, 41 cats sprang out of their cages in 1999 on oversized paws, which buoyed them on top of the snow, with soft tufted ears and the weight of their own survival. The technology to assess the success of the reintroduction program was carried around their furry necks in the form of radio-tracking collars. Of that first year’s release, 17 didn’t make it—some starved to death or became ill, some were shot, and some of the unwary lynx were hit by vehicles.

But the CDOW and the cats persevered. Survival rates of the 96 lynx released in 1999 and 2000 improved. Trackers soon had more than two VHF radio signals that crossed in the night as evidence that the cats had coupled. Six-legged tracks from a feline frenzy were found along a 50-yard swath of groomed snow, and in late May, a stationary signal turned out not to be another lynx mortality, but just the opposite: a new den mother with Colorado’s first two native-born lynx kittens. There was a bumper crop of baby lynx that year—16—with another 39 in 2004 and 50 in 2005. “We turned into kitten junkies,” Shenk told the National Geographic.

The kittens were tagged, and this year, one of those kittens had Colorado’s first grandkittens. In all but two succeeding springs since 1999, more cats have been released, and the 218 Canadian and Alaskan cats—excluding those that have been killed or died—have flourished into a population of approximately 200 Colorado lynx. “Incredible,” said Shenk of the promising story.

Telluride has attracted many of the West’s newcomers, and the lynx are no exception. Regular sightings are reported by ski patrollers, and last year, mountain operators had to shut down Lift 4 temporarily to allow a mother lynx and her two offspring to cross the ski run without fear of their fellow human on-snow travelers.

Deanna Belch, who works for the ski area’s environmental affairs department, conducts snowshoe tours in Prospect Basin. Until last spring, she had only seen the plump paw prints as proof of their existence, but she was stopped in her own tracks when a lynx slunk across the trail in front of her. “I was overwhelmed,” effused Belch. “I thought I would never see one.”

In 2003, the Endangered Species Act that came too late for the resident lynx swooped in to aid the transplant’s recovery. The lynx was listed as threatened, and the cats became a factor to be considered in such developments as the proposed expansion of I-70, the Village at Wolf Creek and other Forest Service plans. The protection of lynx habitat that was feared by developers had come to fruition. But by that time, the recovery program was alive and well. Vail had given a quarter of a million dollars early on to the reintroduction efforts, banking on the success of the program to keep the lynx off the list. It was an investment that paid off. The resort’s controversial expansion plans were approved, despite being in lynx habitat.

People are still a problem for the lynx, despite their healthy population. In October of 2005, Becky Rhoades, an employee at the small post office in Silverton, found something unusual in the outgoing mail: a thick brown radio collar that had been cut in two. Where was the animal? Had the collar been cut from a lynx that had been run over, trapped or starved? Was the collar a message from an unhappy developer in the southern San Juans? Or had someone simply objected to the cat’s lack of privacy? There were no other clues in the mailbox for Division of Wildlife officials to sniff out.

Rick Kahn, the DOW Wildlife Management Supervisor, refused to speculate about the mysterious cut collar. But Kahn, who lobbied for the lynx revival, is cautiously optimistic about the cats’ comeback. He opined that the low number of lynx that fall prey to cars on the increasingly busy roadways in the state could be a sign that “they may have become more adept at crossing over time.” People may also be coming to terms with their new feline neighbors. “There are still concerns from various groups,” said Kahn. “But the amount and content of what is being said is dramatically less than a couple of years ago.”

It will be 12 to 15 years before the project can be deemed a success. The viability of the snowshoe hare population, health of the habitat and relationship with man and other predators of Colorado’s mountain country will determine whether the lynx are here to stay or not.