Lynx Released into San Juan Mountains

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In their slow and unique style, six Canada lynx peered warily from their metal containment boxes, slowly set their paws on the snow and then dashed across a meadow to their new home in the San Juan Mountains.

That was the scene on April 9 near Creede, when the Colorado Division of Wildlife released the six Canada lynx as part of the continuing reintroduction program. About 100 people attended the release event, including officials from a variety of supporting organizations.

For Len Gregory, a member of the board of Great Outdoors Colorado, it marked the first time he watched a lynx release.

“It was a great thrill to see those magnificent animals lope into the woods,” said Gregory who represents the Pueblo area and eastern Colorado on the GOCO board. “We got a chance to see a very worthwhile project at work on the ground. Species recovery is very important, and GOCO continues to be very supportive of the DOW.”

Since lynx reintroduction was started in 1999, GOCO has contributed more than $2.8 million to the program. The DOW has contributed another $1.8 million.

Two other GOCO board members attended the event: Doug Cole of Longmont who represents Northern Colorado; and Kae Rader who represents the Colorado Springs area.

Great Outdoors Colorado receives half the proceeds from lottery ticket sales. Last yearthat totaled $48.3 million.

“When people buy lottery tickets, they are contributing directly to preserving Colorado’s natural environment,” said Peggy Gordon, director of the Colorado State Lottery, who attended the release event. “The lynx reintroduction is one of the great projects supported by the Colorado State Lottery.”

Another organization working to fund the program is the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

“The foundation is raising money from the private sector to support lynx reintroduction,” said Terry Combs, president of the foundation. “Lynx roamed these mountains for centuries. I hope that this project ensures they will be here for centuries more.”

The foundation set a goal to raise $600,000 needed for the effort, and so far it has raised $210,000. Substantial private support for reintroduction is still needed. Coloradans can all make a difference with a generous gift to this campaign, ( Combs and other foundation representatives attended the release event.

Also attending was state Sen. Lewis Entz, who represents the San Luis Valley and is a strong supporter of the reintroduction program. Entz was the only person at the event who had seen lynx in Colorado long before anyone even considered a reintroduction program. He told the crowd that he saw a lynx one morning in the 1940s when he was hunting in the area.

The release proved to be an important education experience for seven students from Adams City High School which is located in Commerce City. The students are studying wildlife as part of a curriculum developed by the DOW, explained Wendy Hanophy, urban wildlife education coordinator for the division. The day before the release the students visited with DOW wildlife experts at the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Del Norte.

The students who attended were: Fidel Soto, Billy Baldwin, Natalie Johnson, Kayla Cooter, Suhei Barragan, Shauna Brummit and Juan Ramirez-Franco. They were accompanied by their teachers, Fran Sturgis and Maggie Guntren.

“I can say with certainty that I drove down with one set of kids and drove home with another,” said Hanophy. “They learned about much more than lynx and our reintroduction effort. This was a profoundly life-changing experience for these kids.”

Also among those attending the release were a photographer and a writer from National Geographic Magazine. The world-renowned publication plans to publish a story about the reintroduction program sometime next winter.

At 8:30 a.m. on April 9 in a parking in South Fork, the DOW’s guests gathered around Tanya Shenk, lead field researcher on the reintroduction project. After explaining the release procedures, Shenk asked that everyone maintain silence at the release site to minimize any stress reactions in the cats.

Then the caravan of about 30 cars drove to the spot in a remote area southwest of Creede. At the site, the crowd watched quietly as DOW staff took the aluminum crates containing the cats off the back of pick-up trucks and carried them to the edge of a snow-covered meadow. The shelters were opened one at a time and the elegant long-legged, rusty-colored lynx moved slowly out of the boxes. As soon as all four of their paws touched the snow, the cats sprinted across the 50-yard wide meadow into the trees. In a few moments they were out of sight.

Shenk explained that the lynx are faring well in the San Juan mountains. “We can’t say the reintroduction is a success yet,” Shenk said. “But we are getting a lot of encouragement every step along the way.”

The program has reached a milestone this year that is particularly exciting for the DOW. This is the first year that kittens born in Colorado will be old enough to breed. If female kittens produce young, it will be a significant achievement for this long-term program, Shenk said.

The reintroduction effort started in 1999, and by the end of April some 204 lynx will have been released – 38 this year. Based on counts and radio-collar tracking through the end of 2004, biologists believe at least 105 lynx are alive. That number does not include the cats released in 2005. DOW biologists have documented that at least 55 kittens have been born in Colorado. The exact number surviving is not known.

Survival rates for lynx increased dramatically after the DOW changed its release procedures. Lynx now are allowed to acclimate in pens in Colorado for a couple of months; they are well fed and their health is closely monitored. Release occurs after April 1 when the lynx are in peak condition and when food sources – mainly small young mammals – are abundant and easily captured.

The DOW is authorized by the Colorado Wildlife Commission to reintroduce lynx for another three years if needed.

“The lynx reintroduction program is recognized as one of the greatest conservation efforts going on in the United States today,” said Bruce McCloskey, director of the DOW. “The effort is a testament to our dedicated staff and to the people of Colorado who firmly support this program.”

Other state of Colorado officials who attended the event included: Brian Macke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; Vince Matthews, state geologist for the Colorado Geological Survey; and Kim Burgess, director of human resources for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Also attending from the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation: board members Ed Alexander and Joe Brienza; Karin Ballard, executive director; and Robin Lybeck, foundation coordinator.