Lynx Snow Tracking Begins, More Releases Planned

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The Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) has resumed winter tracking of the state’s growing Canada lynx population and is preparing to release up to 50 more lynx this spring as part of the agency’s ongoing effort to restore the wild feline to its native Colorado habitat.

Thirty-three lynx trapped in British Columbia and Quebec have already arrived in Colorado in preparation for the 2004 release and more may be captured and sent to Colorado from other Canadian provinces this winter.

DOW tracking crews are already slogging through snowdrifts and climbing over downed timber at elevations above 10,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains to record movements, habitat preferences and what prey the lynx hunt.

Detailed planning is underway for the April release of the 2004 contingent of lynx into some of Colorado’s most rugged, isolated and roadless terrain, just the kind of habitat the animals prefer.

The 2004 efforts follow last year’s first confirmed births of wild lynx in Colorado. Last summer, DOW trackers located six female lynx with a total of 16 kittens snugly tucked in dens at high-elevation sites in the core recovery area of southwest Colorado.

"Documenting the births was an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to recover this native species," said Rick Kahn, the DOW’s senior biologist and leader of the agency’s lynx recovery effort. "But we have much work to do, including releasing up to 50 more lynx this year and another 50 in 2005 and possibly up to 15 more each in 2006 and 2007.

"We still have a long way to go before we reach our goal of having a self-sustaining lynx population back in Colorado," Kahn said.

The tracking crews, lead by DOW researcher Tanya Shenk, have confirmed more important milestones in the 5-year-old reintroduction effort. Of the 33 lynx released in April 2003, only four mortalities have been confirmed.

"The mortality rate has dropped with each year’s reintroduction effort," Kahn said. "The higher survival rate is probably due to the improved release protocol we have implemented and the fact that we already had lynx from our previous releases in established territories when we released animals last April."

Two weeks ago, lynx trackers found more good news. The tracks of a pair of Colorado-born lynx kittens were found with those of their mother, the first confirmation that lynx born last spring have survived so far.

"Based on the tracks we’ve found, we could have up to six lynx kittens, and there could be even more," Kahn said. "Given the high mortality rate typically associated with young lynx, this exceeds our expectations."

Scott Wait, the DOW’s area biologist in Durango, said Quebec has provided 17 lynx and British Columbia another 16. All of the lynx are being held at a facility in southern Colorado where they’ll be fed and cared for so they are in peak condition when released early this spring.

"We hope to receive more lynx from British Columbia and Manitoba before their trapping seasons end," Wait said. "Both provinces have had severe cold weather, making live-trapping of lynx difficult."

All of the lynx will be released into the core recovery area in southwestern Colorado where the previous releases have occurred.

"We plan to begin releasing them the first week of April," Kahn said.

Lynx once inhabited much of Colorado’s high country, but human activity and habitat changes lead to the extirpation of the species around the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The last confirmed lynx was illegally trapped near Vail in 1972.

Colorado began its reintroduction effort in 1999, when 41 lynx were released into the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. When starvation claimed four of the first five lynx released that year, the DOW’s lynx recovery team developed new release protocols, including holding the lynx longer and releasing them in early spring when their prey species are more abundant.

The new release protocol has worked, resulting in a significantly lower mortality rate among the 55 lynx released in 2000 and the 33 released in 2003. Since then, lynx have established territories and delivered healthy young, two major milestones in the recovery effort.

"While much has been accomplished, there are still two key goals that must be met before the reintroduction can be called a success," Shenk explained. "The next step is for the lynx born in the state to reach sexual maturity and have young of their own.

"The final step is for lynx births to exceed the mortality rate," she said. "Only when that occurs will be able to call this effort a complete success."

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 at PO Box 211512, Denver, CO 80221. Help ensure a future for Colorado’s wildlife.