On April 9, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) plans to release six Canada lynx - three females and three males - in the San Juan Mountains near Creede. The release will mark the fifth year that the DOW has released the cats.
Since the program started in 1999, 166 lynx have been released. An additional 38 lynx will be released this year, and possibly up to 15 will be released next year depending on if there is a demonstrated need.
The re-introduction program was established to bring the lynx back to its traditional range. The last verified native lynx sighting in Colorado was in 1973 near Vail. The DOW is authorized by the Wildlife Commission to reintroduce lynx for an additional three years if needed. It is anticipated that the overall monitoring and research program will continue until a self-sustaining population is established or until it is determined infeasible.
The San Juan Mountains provide adequate habitat for the lynx. The area is remote, sparsely populated and holds the type of landscapes preferred by the lynx -- mature forest, abundant wetlands and steep slopes with large areas of downed logs ideal for establishing dens. The San Juans also provide an abundance of small mammals - especially snowshoe hare which is the preferred food of Canada lynx.
The animals that are introduced are provided to the DOW by provincial wildlife agencies in Canada.
While the DOW is tracking dozens of animals that are wearing radio telemetry collars, some of the collars are no longer transmitting. But from backtracking and aerial observation, researchers know that some of those with non-functioning collars are alive. The researchers also know from observations of tracks that not all reproduction is being documented.
Counts of lynx are determined through radio tracking, aerial and on-the-ground observation, and by live trapping. During the late spring the DOW locates dens and checks for new litters of kittens.
Researchers believe that up to 105 lynx are alive. The DOW is currently tracking 80 lynx via radio collars. Signals from 24 radio collars have not been detected since Feb. 1, 2004 – collar batteries have died or the lynx have moved outside of the research area. The DOW will expand its tracking flights this year in an attempt to locate more lynx.
The program also is reaching a milestone in 2005. This is the first year that the kittens born in Colorado will be old enough to breed. If they breed successfully, it will be a significant step in this long-term program.
Kittens are born in June. But because of the difficulty of tracking these animals, information about new litters will not be fully known until next winter.
Biologists have documented that at least 55 kittens have been born in Colorado. The exact number surviving is not known.
Researchers documented 14 lynx litters in 2004 with a total of 39 kittens. Only three of the 14 litters were complete failures. Currently, 18 of the kittens are known to be alive. The status of four others is unknown; their mother has moved far into the Weminuche Wilderness Area and trackers cannot find her.
Three of the 14 females found with kittens in 2004 were released in 2003. Two females that had kittens in 2003, and who reared at least part of their litters through March 2004, gave birth to kittens again in 2004. Two of the litters documented by direct observation or by snow-tracking are from females whose collars no longer transmit. This confirms that the DOW is not able to document all reproduction that is occurring.
While most of the lynx are concentrated in southwest Colorado, the animals continue to show their ability to extend their range. The DOW has received reports of lynx in New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah.
Of the 166 released, 61 lynx have died. From the 1999 release, 26 died; 24 died from the 2000 release; four from the 2003 release; and seven from the 2004 release.
Survival rates increased dramatically after the DOW changed release procedures. Lynx are allowed to acclimate in pens 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.
Survival rates are in the normal range for Canada Lynx. According to studies of lynx in Canada, survival of kittens can range from zero to 70 percent depending on food availability.
DOW, GOCO COOPERATION
The Colorado Division of Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado have worked cooperatively on the lynx re-introduction program since 1997. GOCO has contributed more than $2.8 million toward the effort. The money has been used to fund a variety of activities, including: habitat assessments, acquiring animals for transplants, veterinary inspection, radio-telemetry monitoring, management and conservation strategies planning, etc.
The DOW has spent nearly $1.8 million for the program. Total expenditures are $4.61 million. Also, as part of its wildlife program, GOCO recently contribute $1.2 million to acquire and establish the Frisco Creek State Wildlife Area which is being used as the lynx reintroduction facility and as a wildlife rehabilitation center.