The Vail Valley has a connection to Colorado’s lynx reintroduction story
The ambitious reintroduction program began in 1999; a 'stable' population is in southwestern Colorado
- 1973: A lynx was illegally trapped near Vail. It was the last lynx spotted for 26 years.
- 1999: The Colorado Division of Wildlife begins a re-introduction program in the San Juan Mountains.
- 1999: A lynx is hit by a car and killed on Interstate 70 near Vail Pass.
- 2008: A lynx was hit by a car on a road near Frisco. The animal died.
- 2010: A lynx was killed in northern Summit County. That case remains a mystery.
EAGLE COUNTY — Most of the state’s lynx — at least the ones we know about — live in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. But the animals have a Vail connection.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of an ambitious reintroduction program. After suffering high mortality rates the first few years, the state agency this year estimates the cats’ population at between 150 and 250 animals.
Joe Lewandowski, a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that estimate comes from various kinds of monitoring. The radio collars fitted to the first relocated animals have long since died. So have all the animals in that first generation.
Monitoring these days consists of “occupancy monitoring,” or looking for signs of the animals’ presence. That monitoring is being conducted in a 9,600 square mile area in southwest Colorado.
Since tracking in the winter is easier — the animals leave footprints in the snow — biologists and wildlife officers survey the terrain on skis or snowmobiles, looking for scat and hair, as well as footprints.
It’s a remote area
Wildlife officers will also go into remote areas — the San Juans are nothing if not remote — on horseback during the summer to place cameras.
Tracking is still difficult — and expensive — so population estimates aren’t precise. Lewandowski said it’s also too expensive to try to track the animals outside that southwestern Colorado terrain.
Still, the animals get around.
Lewandowski said lynx wearing tracking collars have been found in Wyoming and New Mexico. One made its way to Kansas for some reason.
“It may have just followed a river bottom,” Lewandowski said.
With a stable population in southwestern Colorado, the reintroduction program is being hailed as a success, especially since the species had been essentially extinct in the state for more than 25 years.
The Vail connection
A lynx illegally trapped near Vail in 1973 was the last one spotted in Colorado until reintroduction began.
In the 1990s, Vail Resorts contributed $200,000 to the reintroduction program, since reintroducing the animals would help head off a federal listing of the animals under the Endangered Species Act. That would have put the animals under federal, not state, authority.
Before reintroduction began, lynx in 1990s played a role in the dispute over Vail Resorts’ expansion into what’s now Blue Sky Basin. Expansion opponents said the terrain could be lynx habitat, although the species at the time was believed to be extinct in Colorado.
On the other hand, in 1999, the year the reintroduction program began in the San Juans, a recently released lynx may have gone through the expansion area before being hit by a car and killed on Interstate 70 near Vail Pass.
While most of the state’s lynx are far to the south of the Vail Valley, Lewandowski said there are occasional reports of the animals in this part of the state. Those reports usually come from backcountry skiers, he said. If anyone does spot a lynx, the state has an online reporting system.
“We’d like to have (those reports),” Lewandowski said. “We encourage people to be citizen scientists.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com or at 970-748-2930.
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