Vail Daily column: Lynx program has been a tremendous success
Vail, CO Colorado
The Colorado Division of Wildlife declared the Colorado Lynx Reintroduction Program to be a success this past September, based on the establishment of a breeding lynx population in the Southern Rockies. After devoting the past 11 years to the lynx reintroduction program, CDOW is now directing efforts towards ongoing population monitoring. The apparent success of the reintroduction of lynx to Colorado, though, does not mean that the population is completely secure.
Reintroduction programs are still relatively new efforts, and scientists learn from each program and each species. The Canada lynx is an elusive high country predator last documented in Colorado in Eagle County when it was trapped illegally by a poacher in 1973. Since 1979, at least 12 different research projects using extensive survey techniques found only minimal evidence of the secretive cats in Colorado. The reintroduction of the Canada lynx, a relatively untried process, began in 1997 and the first lynx were released in February of 1999. Over the course of the next seven years, a total of 218 lynx were released in southwestern Colorado. The fates of these initial 218, with 115 turning up dead from a variety of causes (mostly “unknown”, followed by “human-induced”), might lead the casual observer to conclude that the program was not just unsuccessful, but tragic. These numbers, however, have to be taken in context with the realities of wildlife survival rates in nature, the learning curve of a new scientific enterprise, and the ensuing reproductive successes.
When the first Colorado born kittens were found in 2003, it was a tremendous milestone for the project. The fact that females were healthy and comfortable enough to den and breed was an indication that the population just might make it. During that summer, six dens with a total of 16 kittens were found in the lynx Core Release Area in southwestern Colorado. Successful dens were found during the next three years, but no dens or kittens were found during the summers of 2007 and 2008. Researchers believe that the lack of kittens during these summers was due to a decline in snowshoe hare populations and is consistent with the classic pattern of boom and bust seen by northern Canada lynx populations. The spring of 2009, though, marked another opportunity to breathe easy again, as five dens with a total of 10 kittens were found, one as far north as Eagle County. When more healthy kittens were found in 2010, the population had reached the point where the birth rate was higher than the mortality rate, a point where the population has reached an equilibrium that is thought to be sustainable.
As the reintroduction of the Canada lynx into Colorado enters this new phase, it is important that we don’t forget about these wild cats that we brought back into our backyards. The lynx was reintroduced into southwestern Colorado largely because of the acreage of suitable habitat available. As the lynx population continues to grow, expanding into new territory, there will continue to be human-induced mortality. As our population grows, Coloradoans need to be both thoughtful and innovative in our efforts to integrate population growth with our ability to sustain the wild lands and wildlife that make this place our home.
The lynx reintroduction program has undoubtedly been a tremendous success. A truly wild cat that had all but disappeared from our state now roams the mountains once again. On any given moonlit night, as your skis slide silently across the freshly fallen snow, there just might be a lynx silently stalking its prey around the next bend. But remember, these cats are not out of the woods yet with regard to their long-term survival in Colorado. Colorado’s high country habitats face many threats, including global climate change, wildfires, human population growth, pine beetle infestations, and more. We must be thoughtful as we make decisions for the future, and base them on sound science and for the good of the next seven generations.
Jaymee Squires is the graduate programs director for Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys deciphering animal tracks in the snow, searching for the illusive Lynx, with her husband and two children.