Freedom beckons 6 lynx

Reintroduction program nears end

By DEEDEE CORRELL
THE GAZETTE

DEL NORTE – Lynx No. QU05M08 wasn’t ready to go.

He peered out from his metal cage, straight down the lens of a National Geographic photographer’s camera, then withdrew.

One minute passed, then another.

Twenty yards across the snow, among the spruce and fir, lay freedom.

Finally, he went for it.

Seconds later, the lynx had vanished, becoming Saturday the newest transplant to a state his species once called home.

The $2.5 million lynx reintroduction program the Colorado Division of Wildlife began six years ago is reaching its apex and drawing to an end.

Not only is this the last year wildlife officials intend to release large groups of the cats into the San Juan Mountains, but it’s also the first year they will have a real chance of telling whether the reintroduction effort is working.

Kittens born in Colorado are old enough to breed, and if they do, it could mean the species is once again taking hold.

“I’m optimistic,” wildlife researcher Tanya Shenk said. “But I’m also a scientist, and I have to wait and see.”

This year also is significant because state officials are lobbying the federal government to ease restrictions on construction and logging designed to protect lynx habitat.

Environmentalists say it’s too soon — that the lynx, which disappeared from Colorado by the 1970s, hasn’t had enough time to take root again.

Saturday morning, a caravan of cars headed to Ivy Creek, south of Creede in the San Juan Mountains. Leading them were three pickups, each carrying two tarpwrapped cages. As the onlookers, including a team from National Geographic, whose story is expected to be published next year, waited in silence, workers carried the cages one by one onto the snow, facing the woods beyond.

The first of the six cats to go was a young male captured in Quebec province, Canada. Like the others, he was flown to Denver, then trucked down to the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center outside Del Norte, where the cats are kept in pens and fattened before their release. Days before freedom, biologists sedate the cats, then fit them with radio transmitter collars so their movements can be tracked for years.

The lynx hesitated for several minutes before wildlife technician Loree’ Harvey decided to coax him out. She kneeled at the back of the cage, reached in and scratched her fingers in the hay. The noise, she said, would irritate him enough to make him want to get out. It did. The second and third cats went more quickly, loping across the snow and disappearing. “It’s like watching your kids go off to college,” Harvey said. The difference is that she doesn’t know whether they’ll survive. Of the 166 animals released since 1999, biologists think as many as 105 are still alive. Others have roamed out of the research area, into New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, or have died. One male lynx recently killed another in a territorial dispute. Mountain lions have killed three others, and some have fallen victim to cars or poachers.

If some Lynx are dying, others are reproducing. At least 55 kittens have been born, and if those kittens have kittens, wildlife officials will know they’ve taken a significant step toward success — when more lynx are born than die.

For now, though, their status remains precarious.

That’s why restrictions on development and other activities in lynx habitat should not be lifted, said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, a Boulderbased environmental group.

Because the government declared the lynx a threatened species, federal rules limit development in areas where it lives. Rules vary by location, but can restrict timbering, snowmobiling, new roads and construction of skiarea lodging.

“We need to make sure not only are the animals (reproducing), but that there’s sufficient habitat protected for them,” she said.

The goal always was to create a program in which lynx could survive in the Colorado of today, not the Colorado of 100 years ago, said Bruce Mc-Closkey, Division of Wildlife director.

“That was the deal,” he said.

dcorrell@gazette.com

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