A former resident of Colorado returned to its native land in February this year as 11 Canadian lynx were transplanted to the San Juan National Forest in the state’s southwest. “We have a rare opportunity here and with the help of British Columbia trappers, we can bring back a native that has been missing from the Colorado mountains for a long time,” said Colorado Wildlife Division Director John Mumma. There have been no confirmed lynx sightings in more than two decades though biologists can’t rule out that lynx may still exist in the state. “If they are here, they are in such low numbers, they may be doomed without this effort,” said Mumma.
British Columbia trapper and provincial project coordinator Paul Blackwell delivered the 6 females and 5 males to Colorado project headquarters near Monte Vista, Colorado in late January. The lynx were held for two days to become acclimated then fitted with radio collars. Three females entered a remote wilderness area on private property between Pagosa Springs and Durango. Blackwell documented each lynx to ensure its native habitat was mirrored in Colorado.
Three more females followed the second day. The males were held in a secure facility until the females established a home as there was a high probability that the females were pregnant when captured and would be seeking a den. Settlement could take from 48 hours to two months according to state biologist John Seidel. Once the females settle down, the males were to be released into the same territories.
Colorado is expecting 20 addition lynx from the Yukon and another 20 from Alaska in the near future. January to March is lynx mating season with gestation lasting about 9 weeks, so timing is crucial.
The San Juan National Forest is the most southern of the lynx historical Colorado habitat. “This is a critical time for the lynx,” said Seidel. “Northern populations of lynx are very high right now because snowshoe hares provide about 80 percent of the lynx diet, and the hare are approaching a 10 year high.
This hare species generally follows a 10 year boom and bust population cycle. While snowshoe numbers are at or very near their peak, they are expected to decline in the next few years, with lynx numbers to follow soon after. Once they fall, it will be another four or five years before the lynx populations are again robust enough to transplant.”
The chosen habitat, according to Seidel, is ideal for the lynx as the snowshoe hare does not cycle as it does in British Columbia and other northern climes. State biologists don’t know the reason for this but have based a great deal of the relocation theory on extensive research. Since 1979 they have conducted 12 investigations in Colorado to document the presence of lynx and the snowshoe hare. Intensive efforts using 5,800 miles of snow tracking, 62 hair snag locations, 110 remote cameras and 686 night traps yielded 11 sets of what might be lynx tracks and copious snowshoe hare tracks.
The Canadian lynx measures about 26-42 inches in length and weighs about 5-15 pounds. It has a short black tail, ears with long blackish tuffs and a face with a pronounced ruff. The fur is grey-brown, long, dense, soft and fine. Its huge paws enable it to prowl with speed and dexterity in deep snow pursuing the snowshoe hare. When approached, the lynx emit a defensive growl uncannily like a cornered house cat.
Thanks to CTV and Nicole Lewis for the following rare video of Lynx confronting each other.
British Columbia trappers must undergo periodic education courses taught by Blackwell and fellow B.C. Trappers’ Association educators before renewing their yearly license. Recent curricula included information on new traps and trapping methods. Yukon trappers underwent a live trapping course prior to participation and in Alaska it is the state fish and wildlife personnel, not trappers, who are procuring the lynx.
British Columbia trappers used a 3″ soft hold-offset jawed trap fitted with rubber jaw pads. The traps were secured in a “cubby”-a small trapper designed natural tunnel with one opening. At the back of the cubby was placed a lure to attract the cat. Once the lynx stepped into the cubby, a paw triggers the soft jawed trap. Blackwell demonstrated the trap’s humaneness by triggering it with his hand. No “Ouch”. The lynx, once caught, does not struggle or try to escape, but remains still. At the cubby there is no evidence of a struggle or attempts to escape and Blackwell explained that the lynx is unique in that respect so no emotional trauma or body damage was possible. By law, and according to the program’s directives, trappers had to check their traps every day, this usually meant that the cubby was set one morning and checked the next-lynx being nocturnal predators.
Once secured in the cubby, trappers netted the lynx, covered them with a blanket to quieten, then released the paw and placed it in a large dog kennel equipped with wood chips. The lynx was then transported to a secure compound on private property to await shipping. Blackwell’s assistant Matt Ounbuu said, “I lost a pair of gloves and boots to lynx claws and teeth and received several hand lacerations until I got the hang of holding the cat by the back of the neck while Paul released the paw”. Blackwell said the arrangement worked out well-Ounbuu is younger and faster.
Weather for Blackwell and his trapping colleagues refused to cooperate. Days of mild temperatures made it impossible to get into the bush to set and check traps. When the temperature dropped below freezing and the traps were set, another bout of warm weather covered the traps with snow fallen from the tree overhangs requiring the traps to be reset.
Once all 11 cats were in the large compound, Cache Creek, British Columbia veterinarian Gary Armstrong checked each for ear mites, fleas-no evidence of either-and general overall physiological condition-no paw damage, sound teeth and firm muscle tone. Once inspected, the lynx were loaded on a 1 ton flatbed truck for transportation. Blackwell said that timing was critical as border passes and inspections were valid for only a few hours.
Opposition to the project has been mixed. In Colorado Judge Wiley Daniel refused to issue a restraining order stopping the reintroduction of the lynx. The suit was brought by the Colorado’s Cattlemen’s Association, Woolgrowers, and Farm Bureau who are concerned about grazing rights if the lynx is added to the federal endangered species list, which could be as soon as June ’99. Lynx were designated a state endangered species in 1976 by the Colorado Wildlife Commission protecting the species from being killed or possessed, but not its habitat. If listed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service the habitat would be protected, in which case ranchers may be denied access to their present leased grazing land.
The Canadian Humane society filed an objection with British Columbia Fish and Wildlife. Provincial spokesperson Mike Badry said the main objection was that the Humane Society felt Colorado had not adequately researched potential habitat plus general objections to “interference in nature.” Badry said he wrote the Society and explained that his ministry was satisfied with Colorado’s preparations. Jennifer Deneen, Executive Director of Furbearers Association, an activist group based in Vancouver, British Columbia said, “We are concerned that we have enough lynx to send without depleting our native stock. We are also concerned about other animals getting caught in the traps set for lynx and possible paw damage to caught lynx.”
Objections have not been limited to letter writing. In Colorado, an eco-terrorist group claimed responsibility for fires set on Vail Mountain in October ’98 that caused $12 million in property damage. The group claims to have set seven fires, citing defense of Canadian lynx habitat and to protest Vail’s plan to expand into 885 acres of national forest they said is prime lynx habitat. State Wildlife Division Director John Mumma said “The irony is that while terrorists were destroying private property, my department was introducing lynx to better habitat than what is available at Vail.”
Support for the project out ranked the objections. Linda Tipton of Boulder County Audubon Society said, “If the Division of Wildlife does well, it could save Colorado from federal restrictions in the future.” “The lynx has been a missing part of the high altitude ecosystem for years,” said Jim McKee of the Boulder County Natural Association. “There is nothing more exciting than bringing back species that once lived here.”
What are the chances of success? A similar project was conducted in the Adirondacks in 1992. Out of 50 uncollared lynx, 6 were killed on roads, 2 were shot and 3 died from natural causes. 22% mortality. There was no follow-up and researchers have no idea of the project’s success or failure. Biologist Seidel plans for a 50% mortality rate but intends to keep that down through proper habitat selection and monitoring. However, there are obstacles and dangers that face the lynx that will be difficult if not impossible to avoid. The cats may have a food source competition from coyotes and bobcats. Surrounding deserts are expected to keep the lynx from emigrating but there is a major highway running through the San Juan National Forest that may take its toll. In addition, considerable fragmentation has occurred as a result of the human population growth, other roads, reservoirs and ski areas. Large clear-cuts can eliminate lynx habitat as they will avoid large openings that lack the cover for snowshoe hares and the lynx themselves. Colorado biologist Seidel said that his state has not clear-cut for decades.
There is a certain irony here. British Columbia sent lynx to a non-clear cut habitat that is conducive to lynx survival. The British Columbia Fish and Wildlife produced a trapper’s training manual that includes survival data for lynx, martin, fisher and other furbearers. They state, “Some methods of logging, such as selective cutting and strip logging, provide openings, increase forest diversity and can improve the habitat for both snowshoe hares and lynx.” B.C. Environmental Ministry Ecosystem specialist Roger Packham advocates 400 hectare plots-1,000 acres. Should British Columbia anticipate the destruction of furbearing habitat and the extinction of native species?
Colorado Wildlife plans call for 50 more lynx from the same areas in the years 2000 and 2001 with a budget in excess of $1 million, the bulk of which is from private donations. The next release is planned for the winter of 1999-2000 in a remote area of the Gunnison National Forest. Blackwell will again be the provincial coordinator. “Next season will be much easier as I have all the ground work set, the trappers lined up and a successful routine established,” said Blackwell.
Since life began on this planet many species have come and gone through natural changes in physical and biological conditions. Since these extinction’s occur naturally why should Colorado, or any state or province, spend money and effort to conserve species that are nearing this end? How do they benefit society if restored? The American congress addressed these questions in the preamble to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, “Recognize that endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the nation and its people.” Remember the spotted owl? “Here Kitty Kitty.”
“With at least 10,000 jobs in the Pacific Northwest expected to be lost so as to save some of nation’s oldest trees and the owls that live among them, loggers and sawmill workers here are demanding economic compensation from the Federal Government.”