Clawing their way back

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Back in 1999, the chances that Colorado would ever again have a healthy population of Canada lynx did not look promising.

A program to reintroduce the native felines to the state had begun with great fanfare, as hordes of media covered the release of the first few lynx near Creede in February of that year. But within a few weeks, four of the first five released lynx had starved to death, and the reintroduction – which had been opposed all along by some groups representing outfitting, logging and ranching interests – now met with fresh resistance from animal-rights activists, who called it cruel.

More laid back than bobcats

Canada lynx are still doing well in Canada and Alaska, but are gone from much of their historic range in the lower 48 states.

Adults weigh from 20 to 35 pounds and are similar in size and appearance to bobcats. One important difference, however, is that lynx have much larger paws, enabling them to move over the top of the snow in the high-elevation forests they prefer.

Lynx also differ from bobcats in temperament, according to Tanya Shenk, lead researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s lynx reintroduction program. “Lynx are a much more laid-back, easy-going animal,” she said. “Mellow is a good word.

“Bobcats are very high-strung. When you see a bobcat you just see him for a second and he’s gone, but lynx will stand there and stare back at you, maybe for three or four minutes. Lynx tend to be very inquisitive, curious.” Historic accounts agree. A 1947 book, “Mammals of North America,” states, “Toward man, the lynx is absolutely inoffensive. Only in a trap will it fight back, and even then it may not.”

“That’s been a double-edged sword for them,” Shenk said. “If people get an opportunity for a lynx sighting, it’s wonderful because they’ll get a good sighting. But when it comes to poaching, it’s a problem.”

Nevertheless, the Colorado Division of Wildlife persisted with the reintroduction, turning more and more of the radio-collared animals loose in the San Juan Mountains, one of the wildest parts of the state.

Now, six years later, lynx are apparently thriving in Colorado.

At least 46 kittens were born this spring; 39 were documented last year. In addition, as many as 141 reintroduced adults are also wandering the state, preying on small animals and birds.

It’s a remarkable success story, particularly for a predator reintroduction, considered more difficult than efforts to restore other animals.

“As far as any reintroduction goes, this has gone extremely well, after the initial hurdles of the first year,” said Tanya Shenk, mammals biologist with the DOW and the lead researcher with the lynx program.

“The last two years, reproduction has been really good,” said Joe Lewandowski, a DOW spokesperson in Durango. “The mortality rate for the lynx that have been released has also been good.”

But the long-term future of the lynx in Colorado is by no means certain. The animals face a number of threats, most of them human-caused. Poaching and being hit by vehicles are the leading known causes of mortality, according to Shenk.

And a proposed development in the heart of the lynx’s habitat on Wolf Creek Pass has raised new concerns.

‘Off the charts’

The turnaround in the lynx program came not long after the first animals starved. Biologists had been operating under the assumption that it would be best to release the cats, which were trapped in Canada and Alaska, as quickly as possible after they came to Colorado so they wouldn’t grow accustomed to humans.

But that assumption proved wrong.

“There wasn’t a good understanding that the animals needed to acclimate and get over the trauma of being trapped and transported,” Lewandowski said. “Now they’re held for a month or two, fattened up, fed some local critters, and they get acclimated to the environment in general, the altitude and such.”

The lynx are now released after April 1, when there is an abundance of prey, instead of in the dead of winter. “The success rate kind of went off the charts after that,” Lewandowski said.

But a problem remained: The lynx weren’t reproducing. Although 41 lynx were turned loose in 1999 and another 55 in 2000, there was no evidence of any kittens. 2001 and 2002 went by without any more lynx releases – nor, as biologists watched with sinking hearts, any litters.

They decided the animals were simply too few and too scattered to breed. In 2003, the DOW obtained permission from the state wildlife commission to release more lynx. Later that year, the first kittens were found.

‘Our beacon of hope’

So far, 101 kittens have been born in Colorado, and biologists are now hoping for a couple more milestones. They want to see if the reproduction rate will exceed the number of lynx dying, and they await the first generation of kittens that will be born to cats born in Colorado.

Colorado’s lynx program is “sort of our beacon of hope,” said David Gaillard, interim director of the nonprofit Predator Conservation Alliance, based in Montana.

Elsewhere in the lower 48 states, lynx are not faring so well. “We don’t have much information, and what we do have indicates a pretty rare, struggling population,” Gaillard said.

There are pockets of lynx in western Montana and northern Washington state, and also in Minnesota and Maine, he said. “But they’re definitely at the margin of their survival, even in the southern Rockies.”

Extensive trapping and predatorcontrol efforts decimated the lynx population decades ago. The last lynx confirmed in Colorado before the reintroduction was illegally bludgeoned to death by a trapper in 1973 near Vail.

The lynx was declared a federally threatened species in the lower 48 states in March 2000. Under the Endangered Species Act, a threatened species is one likely to become endangered throughout all or much of its historic range. An endangered species is in danger of extinction.

Trapping and predator control aren’t as great a threat today, Gaillard said, but the lynx faces continuing loss of habitat for itself and its favorite prey, the snowshoe hare. The hares like high-elevation forests of fir and Engelmann spruce. When that vegetation is thinned or cleared, lynx suffer, too.

‘Steer development to other places’

Humans in the backcountry aren’t necessarily a major disturbance to lynx, Gaillard said, but dogs, poaching and trapping obviously are threats. And while a snowmobile or crosscountry skier may not faze a lynx, the compacted trails they leave can pose a subtle peril.

“Lynx are pretty specialized in their habitat,” Gaillard said. “Their niche has always been higher-elevation habitat where you have deep, soft snow.”

There, lynx can out-compete bobcats, coyotes and cougars because their oversized, furry paws enable them to move easily over the snow.

But snowmobiles and skiers compact the snow, potentially enabling other predators to get a foothold and compete for the lynx’s prey.

Another possible threat to the cats is global warming. But much more research is needed before it will be clear exactly what factors help them survive, Gaillard said.

Even the lynx’s precise habitat requirements aren’t entirely clear. Critical habitat for the lynx has not yet been designated although that is expected this fall, Gaillard said. “In the case of the spotted owl, we know they need old growth,” he said. “For lynx, they need more of a mix – some old growth for denning, some open areas for hunting, so it’s tough for us to make the case that you can’t take a tree out of an area or can’t put in a snowmobile route.

“It’s hard to know the things that come together to make or break the lynx. I think the main thing is to figure out where lynx are occurring, breeding, surviving, and do our best to really maintain those areas,” he said. “We need to learn more and try to steer development to other places.”

10,000 people at 10,000 feet

But steering development to other places often isn’t easy.

The Village at Wolf Creek, a resort planned on a 288-acre inholding within the Wolf Creek Ski Area and Rio Grande National Forest northeast of Pagosa Springs, would bring development straight to the heart of Colorado’s lynx-reintroduction effort.

The $1 billion development would include 2,172 residential units and 222,100 square feet of commercial space as well as 4,267 parking spaces, a dozen restaurants, a convention center and several hotels, all at or above 10,000 feet in elevation. The resort could house more than 10,000 people.

The controversial proposal by Texas billionaire Red McCombs, cofounder of Clear Channel Communications, and project manager Bob Honts would be a major disturbance for lynx, contends Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild, a nonprofit environmental group based in Durango.

“This is a very, very environmentally sensitive location, between the largest wilderness in the southern Rockies – the Weminuche – and the wildest– the south San Juans,” Berman said. “This is precisely the area the lynx reintroduction hinges on for success.

“One of the primary reasons for extirpation of species is habitat fragmentation, and the Village at Wolf Creek would bring a great deal of habitat fragmentation.”

In addition, increased traffic would make it much more difficult for the lynx to cross Highway 160, isolating populations on both sides of the road and potentially causing inbreeding, Berman said.

“The Village poses a huge threat to lynx persistence in the southern Rockies and Colorado,” he said. Lewandowski said the DOW is definitely concerned about the impact the Village will have on lynx and other wildlife.

“We don’t have any regulatory authority to say, ‘You can’t build here.’ We can only comment,” he said. “There will be more traffic, obviously; there will be development in wetlands, people pressure – there’s no question those things have some impact on wildlife. We believe Colorado is still a good place for wildlife, but there’s definitely a concern about the impacts up there (on Wolf Creek Pass).”

Crossing the highway

At the request of the Forest Service, the DOW did an analysis of lynx movements and highway crossings near the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. The DOW used data from the lynx’s radio transmitters, but noted that such information has limited accuracy and gives locations only periodically. The analysis concluded that lynx use the area around the proposed Village more as a corridor than for permanent residence. The corridor, however, links two primary year-round use areas, one near Creede and a second northwest of Platoro Reservoir.

Dens and kittens were found both north and south of Highway 160 in these high-use areas, the report states. The study estimated that 27 individual lynx made 52 crossings of Highway 160 in the Wolf Creek area from 1999 through 2004.

Not surprisingly, automobiles have proven to be one of the worst threats to the animals. Of 61 known deaths among the 166 cats released from 1999 through 2004, at least seven, and probably nine, were caused by cars. (There were also 12 shootings or probable shootings and nine starvation deaths, most of those in the early days of the releases.)

Radio-tracking data shows that, though some lynx have ranged northward along the Rockies or moved west toward the Utah border, the majority remain in or around the San Juan Mountains.

“From what little historic records we have, this is their historic range,” Shenk said.

Lynx have been located in eight national forests in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, but the Rio Grande National Forest has the most, with 161 documented there during the six years of the program.

Studying the impacts

Projects that might disturb the habitat of threatened or endangered species must be reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency is now working with the Forest Service and the developers to address the impacts of the Village at Wolf Creek, according to Al Pfister, Western Colorado supervisor for the USFWS.

“By far the main impact (to lynx) is the increased traffic that would result from the development, fragmenting the population down there in Southwest Colorado as well as killing individual lynx,” Pfister said.

“The impact of an urban development of that size and all its associated effects on the lynx that do utilize that particular area will not be insignificant. An additional 10,000 people in there, and their recreational activities, will have an effect on lynx.”

Pfister said possible options for mitigating the impacts might include under- or overpasses to enable the lynx to cross Highway 160 safely, or speed-reduction for traffic in the area. “It’s been documented that wildlife do use overpasses and underpasses,” he said.

Lawsuits and deadlines

Colorado Wild has sued the Forest Service for granting a special-use permit to the developers allowing them temporary access across national-forest land to their property. The permit was issued without a public process, in violation of an agreement the group had with the agency, Colorado Wild contends. Permanent access is a key issue for the development, which is landlocked except for a seasonal Forest Service road.

Colorado Wild has also sued the Forest Service in an effort to obtain certain public records relating to communication between McCombs and the agency. There have been allegations that McCombs’ strong Republican ties have led to special treatment for the developer.

Colorado Wild has also sued Mineral County for approving the Village development plan. Owners of the Wolf Creek Ski Area are suing the developers, too. Arguments were scheduled to be heard in District Court in Creede at the end of July.

Meanwhile, the USFWS has requested an extension on issuing a draft biological opinion on the impacts of the development. The Rio Grande National Forest is scheduled to issue a final environmental impact statement this fall on the access road to the resort. And the lynx program continues.

Starting in 2006, plans are to release only enough lynx to replace the adults who have died, Lewandowski said. Monitoring and tracking of the animals will probably continue for several years.

“”What we’re counting on is that natural reproduction is going to keep the population self-sustaining,” Lewandowski said.

Vanishing wilderness?

The controversy over the Village at Wolf Creek will rage for some time. However it is resolved, the development raises questions that go beyond the fate of just one species.

In the 1990s, when researchers were contemplating the lynx reintroduction effort, the Division of Wildlife also considered reintroducing wolverines, which once roamed Colorado’s wild places and are a state endangered species.

But the initial furor over the lynx reintroduction, as well as questions about cost, squelched that effort. Today, Lewandowski said, DOW biologists are uncertain whether a wolverine reintroduction would work.

“The idea is still getting kicked around,” he said. “In the beginning, we were talking about (reintroducing) both (species) at the same time, but we decided one was enough.

“There’s a study going on. We need to find out if Colorado still has the pristine wild environment that wolverines need. They’re even more solitary and need even bigger, vaster spaces than a lynx. “With more and more people going into the backcountry – snowmobiling, skiing – we’re going to have to take a hard look at whether wolverines are still suited to Colorado in the 21st century.”

No one is saying that, if the Village at Wolf Creek is built as planned, it would spell the end for lynx in Colorado. A single development, no matter how massive, is unlikely to doom a species.

But as more and more recreation and development come to remote places, the question becomes whether any animals as solitary and specialized as lynx can continue to survive. If Colorado’s wildest areas are no longer wild enough to sustain wolverines, or even lynx, in the 21st century, then where are such animals to live? It’s a question that, like the Village at Wolf Creek, will probably be debated for years to come.

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From August 2005.