Lynx sightings on the rise in Summit County

Lynx chasing a mouseWhile federal agencies and environmental groups continue to battle over legal and regulatory conservation measures, Colorado’s lynx reintroduction program reached an important milestone this spring. Biologists with the state’s division of wildlife for the first time documented native recruitment to the lynx population transplanted from Canada and Alaska in recent years.

Simply put, that means that the lynx brought into the state are reproducing, and that the kittens born to the transplanted cats have also successfully produced offspring. According to the best available estimates, about 200 of the wild cats are now roaming the state, and the White River National Forest remains an important area for them.

And while lynx are renowned for being shy and reclusive, they have been spotted and tracked in Summit County, most recently this spring, when several locals were fortunate enough to enjoy close encounters with the big-pawed, tuft-eared cats.

“It was the morning of Mothers’ Day, right after I saw the Loch Ness monster,” joked Gary Severson, talking about his encounter with a lynx, right in the driveway of his home near Breckenridge, on the south side of French Gulch. Severson, director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, lives on a 17-acre parcel of land with mixed forest, including some lodgepole, as well as spruce, fir and aspen.

“First I thought it was a bobcat. It was just taking a leisurely walk, right down the middle of Highpoint Drive,” Severson said, explaining that he spotted the cat as he was enjoying a morning cup of coffee. At the same time, a red fox showed up and gave the lynx a wide berth, Severson said.

Severson said he reported the sighting to the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The agency monitors lynx sightings throughout the state, hoping to identify important movement corridors and gain insight into how the cats use the habitat that’s available. Altogether, state biologists have recorded hundreds of lynx locations on the White River National Forest.

While most of the cats have set up territories in the San Juans, surrounding the release area in the headwaters of the Rio Grande near Creede, several distinct sub-populations are developing farther north, in between Aspen, Leadville and Copper Mountain.

About the same time Severson saw a lynx in his driveway, a pair of lift maintenance workers at Keystone also spotted one of the cats at the base of North Peak.

“This cat had a collar on,” said Keystone operations director Chuck Tolton. “They had a chance to observe it for a few minutes. We’re pretty excited about this. It’s the third sighting at Keystone,” he said, adding that the furtive cats have also left a few sets of prints around the ski area. “We are very much committed to reporting the sightings,” he said.

In fact, the resort has a wildlife poster and a chart to list wildlife sighting posted in an operations center at the base area.

“It was about 11 a.m. We were working on a drive at the Ruby Lift. There hadn’t really been any activity since the mountain closed down,” said Eric Benson, the lift maintenance worker who first spotted the cat. “I was coming down on a snowmobile and saw something moving across the front of Le Bonte’s Cabin. I thought it might be a lynx. It was kind of cautious at the road crossing and then I realized it had a collar. It just kind of wandered off into the woods,” Benson said, estimating that he observed the cat for about two minutes. “I was totally amazed. So few people see them in the wild.”

Benson’s co-worker, Josh Stone, spotted what was presumably the same lynx just about the same time.

“I was working at the bottom of the Outback and cruising along Keystone Gulch Road headed toward the Santiago chair. At first, I didn’t know what it was. I thought maybe it was a German Shepherd,” Stone said. “It was walking parallel to the road and it didn’t really seem to care that I was there,” he said.

Rick Thompson, a wildlife biologist who works with Keystone on lynx conservation issues, has also tracked the cats at the ski area. In one case, Thompson said he followed tracks within 100 yards of the Keystone gondola to the area around the Windows and the Prospector ski trail.

Another lynx was spotted several years ago in the vicinity of Montezuma by Steve Hornback, now the mayor of Summit County’s smallest town. Other cats have been located in the vicinity of Vail Pass. The forested area between the pass and Copper Mountain is also considered to be a potentially important north-south movement corridor for lynx.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife reported that the number of lynx births dropped this spring as compared to previous years. In a press release posted on the agency’s website, biologists said they think that constantly adding new lynx to the population mix may actually be having a detrimental effect on breeding. As a result, the agency will suspend releases of new lynx for now, waiting to see how the existing population fares in the coming years.

By Bob Berwyn

Summit Daily

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