By DEEDEE CORRELL THE GAZETTE
Colorado’s transplanted lynx are multiplying like the rabbits they love to eat.
A record 46 kittens were born this spring to the endangered cats that the Colorado Division of Wildlife has reintroduced to the mountains of southern Colorado during the past six years.
The births suggest the lynx again are taking root in a state they once called home.
“This is exceeding our expectations,” Wildlife Division spokesman Joe Lewandowski said Tuesday.
More exciting than the numbers is the observation that many of the lynx are establishing family relationships and a stable social structure, said Tanya Shenk, the division’s lead lynx researcher.
Some mothers are having their second and third litters with the same mate and raising them to adulthood, she said.
“We’re not just seeing kittens born; we’re seeing them survive to independence,” she said.
Still, Lewandowski said, the agency isn’t ready to declare the program a complete suc- cess.
“They probably won’t say that for three to five more years,” he said.
The lynx was thought to be extinct in Colorado by the 1970s. In 1999, the DOW began a $2.5 million effort to restore the species. The animals are trapped in Canada and released in the San Juan Mountains near Creede, where the snowshoe hare — the mainstay of their diet — abounds.
The program’s first year was dismal; 26 of the first 41 lynx died, some of starvation.
The division quickly changed its methods, holding the lynx at a wildlife rehabilitation center for several weeks to fatten them up instead of releasing them immediately.
The mortality rate dropped sharply. In 2003, five died; in 2004, seven died. Some were hit by cars, and others were shot or killed by other animals.
Although many remain in the San Juans near their release site, others have migrated to New Mexico, the Collegiate Peaks and the New York Range near Eagle.
Tracked via radio collars, some have wandered into Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, Lewandowski said.
Since the program began, the division has released 204 lynx; 63 have died. From 1999 to 2004, a total of 101 kittens were born.
More than 46 kittens may have been born this year, but researchers couldn’t find them because some of the adult lynx have shed the radio collars that enable the DOW to track them.
This spring, researchers found 16 litters — 21 females and 25 males, Shenk said.
She remains cautious.
“You can have a run of good years,” she said. “Maybe we haven’t had a bad year yet.”
Although researchers are pleased, they know the program has not reached a critical milestone — when kittens born in Colorado have kittens of their own. Lynx can reach sexual maturity when they’re 18 months old, but that also can take three years.
The kittens born this spring all were born to transplants from Canada. That will be the real proof of success, said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group. She praised this year’s count as evidence of “a tremendous success story.” To ensure that the lynx continue to thrive, she said state officials must protect their habitat.
This year, state officials are lobbying the federal government to ease restrictions on construction and logging designed to protect lynx habitat.
At a lynx release in April, Division of Wildlife Director Bruce McCloskey said the goal was to see whether lynx could survive under today’s conditions, not the Colorado of 100 years ago.
Those restrictions should not be lifted, Keefover-Ring said. “If there’s no habitat, we won’t have lynx,” she said.