Into the wild

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Photo by Associated Press
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One of six Canada lynx steps out of a container as it is released into the wilds of southwestern Colorado last year near Creede.
Associated Press


Bob Berwyn
Vail Daily News

CREEDE – Since 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has been releasing Canada lynx into the San Juan mountains. And by tracking the cats via satellites and planes, the agency knows they are thriving, finding plenty of food, setting up home ranges and, for the last couple of years, even breeding successfully.

But lynx are nothing if not elusive, and sightings are rare. That’s what made Saturday’s event near the headwaters of the Rio Grande even more special for about 75 people who witnessed the first release in 2006. Many of the guests have a long-standing interest in how the animals fare in Colorado, from carnivore advocates like Sinapu, to Great Outdoors Colorado director John Swartout, whose organization has provided the bulk of the funding for the expensive and time-consuming project.

So when the wildlife biologists lowered the four metal cages onto the snow, the crowd hushed. It was quiet enough to hear the raspy wing beat of a circling crow, the wind sighing through the tips of the evergreens and the muffled rush of the nearby river.

One after another, the doors were opened. After just a few seconds hesitation, the big-pawed, tuft-eared cats appeared, and without so much as a sideways glance, bounded across the meadow and disappeared in the thick forest, leaving only a trail of prints in the crusty snow.

“They are wild animals,” said Scott Wait, a division biologist, asking the audience to stay quiet and motionless during the release.

“It’s almost a spiritual thing,” said division director Bruce McCloskey, implying that there’s an emotional component that goes along with the important scientific work that’s part of the lynx recovery effort.

More lynx knowledge
-Trapping, poisoning and development wiped out native lynx, with the last confirmed sighting before the recovery program coming in 1973 near Vail.

-An attempt in the 1980s to restore lynx to the Adirondacks in New York state was considered a failure because there was no evidence the animals were reproducing.

-In the late 1990s, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department documented the first lynx dens in the Rockies.

-Lynx released in Colorado have also strayed into Utah and New Mexico.

SOURCE: The Associated Press

“That was great,” said 11-year-old Logan King, on hand helping his dad film some footage for Channel 7 out of Denver. “It’s really cool to be able to see this,” he said.

King wasn’t the only youngster on hand. The scene at the remote site resembled a Sunday picnic in the country, with numerous families standing by with cameras and binoculars. After all, it’s not every day one gets to see an animal that’s on the endangered species list make a comeback.

Inviting the public to the release is a way of getting people involved in the lynx recovery program that’s not at all detrimental to the cats, said lead biologist Tanya Shenk, who has often been described as a “den mother” for her work with the wild cats.

“I’ve been working on this since the early days,” said Great Outdoors Colorado director John Swartout. “I remember trying to get support from the cattle ranchers and wool growers back in the days when it (the recovery program) could have gone either way,” Swartout said.

“You have to remember, there was a lot of discussion about whether it’s appropriate to spend GOCO dollars on this,” he said, explaining that the organization’s main mission is land protection.

But the lynx program is important because it can help identify which lands are important to preserve from a habitat standpoint, Swartout said.

“The science that comes out of this will tell which habitat to protect,” he said.

To date, the state has spent about $2 million on the recovery effort. By the end of this month, the agency will have transplanted 218 lynx from Canada and Alaska. Biologists estimate that there are between 150 and 200 lynx roaming the mountains of Colorado at present, including several dozen that have been born here in the past two years.

Vail, Colorado

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