Vail Daily column: The story of the Colorado lynx
The year was 1973, and though unbeknownst to many, a tragedy had struck the White River National Forest. A lynx was illegally trapped on Vail ski area. Now, while mildly tragic that this individual lynx had been killed, the real tragedy was not realized until months later. As time passed, no more lynx sightings were recorded, nor were any trapped and no carcasses were found. Months turned into years, and years turned into decades. Finally, the lynx was regarded as regionally extinct in Colorado. The last one definitively seen was the result of an illegal trapper’s escapade on the mountain we all love.
In 1997, the Colorado Division of Wildlife decided to try and reverse this damage by initiating a reintroduction of the charismatic carnivore. Between 1999 and 2006, 218 lynx were transplanted from Alaska and Canada into the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern sector of the state. Besides the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park less than a decade before, this was to be the largest carnivore reintroduction the country had seen. The ultimate goal was to produce a stable and sustainable population of the feline. To monitor the cat’s location, movement, and preferred habitat, each of the original released lynx were fitted with telemetry collars which were the crucial instruments used to monitor the success of the project.
Early indications of the reintroduction showed that the project may have been doomed to fail. In the late ’90s when the reintroduction was underway, studies showed that the lynx’s preferred food, the snowshoe hare, had a particularly low population. Lynx carcasses with the tell-tale signs of starvation were not an uncommon sight among the field researchers monitoring the individuals. The low hare population combined with the stress of unfamiliar terrain almost proved too much for the elusive cat, not to mention the pressures exerted from the other carnivores of the region. Ten percent of the carcasses recovered in the first eight years were definitively shown to have died from starvation, with a likely higher percentage due to 36 percent of deaths being classified as inconclusive of a definitive cause. Needless to say, early results gave critics plenty of ammunition to garner and use against the reintroduction project.
The Comeback Cat
After the initial negative results, release protocol was altered and results improved. Also, as it turns out, it was a very good idea more than 200 individuals were released in the wild. Initial mortality rates of released animals are staggeringly high at around 50 percent. The most basic aspect of the survival of the fittest concept teaches us that only the strong survive. The idea in reintroductions like this one is that there simply has to be enough survivors to produce a stable population. By 2007, 101 (47 percent) of the 218 individuals had perished, but the signs of success were beginning to show. Most notably, baby lynx were being born. By 2010, there were third generation lynx running around Colorado, meaning the original individuals had become grandparent lynx. Over 40 percent of females were bearing litters, with a total of 141 new lynx counted by researchers. Later that year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife declared the reintroduction a success. The lynx were thriving in their old stomping grounds and the population’s birth rate was higher than the death rate, a trend thought to still be occurring. With most of the current population being second generation or beyond, they lack collars and are therefore hard to monitor, but as of 2010, there was a stable population of an estimated 250 lynx and showing signs of growth. While the lynx is still considered a threatened species in the lower 48, this project could very well change that. Thanks to the CDOW, we can see that it is very possible to have success in carnivore reintroductions.
Taylor Haas is a naturalist at Walking Mountain Science Center. He hails from the state of Texas, and we reckon if ya’ll look over yonder by that mountain over there, you can see him skiing down it most days.