Lynx Program Builds on 2003 Success

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At least two of the 30 Canada lynx kittens born in Colorado this spring are thriving based on a rare glimpse of the secretive cats earlier this month.

A member of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s lynx monitoring team was able to briefly approach two of the kittens in southwestern Colorado, while the mother kept herself discretely hidden, her telltale radio collar pulsing and giving away her location. Though the lynx kittens were no more than seven to eight weeks old, they were comfortably resting on a tree branch, proving their ability to climb to protect themselves.

DOW researcher Grant Merrill picked up a faint radio signal while investigating a den site used by a female from the Yukon Territory that had been released in 2000. Using a hand-held antenna that can pick up signals emitted by radio collars attached to lynx when they are released, he was able to close in on the location in dense timber.

“Eventually, to my surprise and bemusement, I found a kitten up a tree,” Merrill said. “I thought to myself, ‘The little buggers can climb trees already!’ I looked around a little more and found the second kitten also up a tree just 15 to 20 feet away.”

By the strength of the beeping transmitted from the female’s collar, Merrill knew she was nearby. He quickly snapped some photos and then left the site.

“This is the first time we’ve seen kittens outside of a den,” said Tanya Shenk, a DOW research biologist who leads the lynx monitoring effort. “We won’t be able to do this often, but it does provide valuable information about the kittens’ development and may explain why we’ve been unable to confirm the presence of other kittens.”

Colorado’s lynx reintroduction effort paid even bigger dividends in 2004 with at least 30 kittens born to 11 lynx mothers, nearly double the 16 kittens confirmed by the DOW in 2003.

“We documented 18 possible mating pairs of lynx during the breeding season earlier this year,” Shenk said. “During May and June, we found 11 dens and a total of 30 kittens. At all of the dens, the females appeared in excellent condition, as did the kittens.”

Most of the dens were found in the core habitat area of southwestern Colorado in extremely rugged, high-elevation Engelmann spruce/subalpine fir forests in areas of extensive downfall.

Shenk thinks there may be more kittens based on movements of females equipped with collars and tracks seen during the winter surveillance period. But on several occasions, the lynx mothers thought to have kittens kept one step ahead of the trackers. The ability of the kittens to climb trees and remain hidden may be one explanation, she said.

The DOW has released 167 lynx in Colorado since the reintroduction program began in 1999. Up to 50 more lynx will be released next year with another 15 each in 2006 and 2007.

“We are already working with officials in several Canadian provinces to arrange for the trapping and transport of lynx next winter,” said Scott Wait, the DOW’s area biologist in Durango. So far, lynx have come from British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, the Yukon Territory and Alaska.

Once lynx are captured, they are taken to a private wildlife rehabilitation facility near the San Luis Valley, said Chuck Wagner, a DOW area biologist in Monte Vista who coordinates agency efforts while lynx are held until their release.

“The facility has been critical in allowing us to hold lynx so we can be sure they’re in peak condition when they are released,” Wagner said.

Other major milestones in the effort include:

• Confirming that lynx can be successfully held, then released;
• Lynx finding adequate prey and establishing territories;
• Mating behavior;
• The birth of kittens;
• The survival of kittens through their first year.

“We intend to continue this program to reestablish this native species in our state,” said DOW Director Bruce McCloskey. “This recovery effort is the continuation of a century-old effort to protect and restore native wildlife and protect the habitat these species need to survive.”

The Canada lynx is one of Colorado's most elusive native species. The tuft-eared cat closely resembles a bobcat, with well-furred paws for tracking through snow. Lynx historically have been found in Canada and the northern United States, including the central and southern Rocky Mountain regions. Before the state's current reintroduction plan began, the last verified record of lynx detailed an illegal trapping of two cats near Vail in 1973. The Colorado Wildlife Commission listed the lynx as a state endangered species in 1975.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to the Lynx Restoration Project, please visit www.cwhf.info to donate by credit card. Or mail your check or money order to the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 211512, Denver, CO 80221. Help ensure a future for Colorado’s wildlife.