Lynx reintroduction program successful

This lynx kitten was photographed during the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s annual spring surveys.

Calling it a proud day for the Division of Wildlife, Director Tom Remington announced Friday that the state’s 11-year lynx-reintroduction project has accomplished its goal of establishing a sustaining population of the tuft-eared cats in the Southern Rockies.

Researchers this spring found 14 lynx kittens in five separate dens, bringing the total of kittens found to 141 since 2003.

There may be more. The 14 kittens discovered this year are the minimum number of kittens born. Some of the breeding-age female lynx are not wearing monitoring collars.

Division officials said the total number of births has outpaced mortality in the 11 years of the reintroduction program, a key factor for a self-sustaining population.

“We’ve done everything necessary to restore lynx to Colorado,” said Rick Kahn, the former DOW terrestrial-resources manager who spearheaded the reintroduction program for more than a decade. “Now it’s up to the cats to continue to respond as they have for the past 10 years.”

The lynx reintroduction began in 1999 when lynx from Alaska and Canada were released into the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. From 1999 to 2006, the division released 218 lynx, monitoring both radio- and satellite-collared lynx as they colonized the core area and expanded their range into other parts of Colorado’s high country.

Despite some early stumbles in the program, including several controversial deaths by starvation when the lynx were released before they had adjusted to Colorado’s habitat, the lynx have become at-home in Colorado’s rugged mountains.

In their native boreal habitat, lynx depend on snowshoe hares for their primary winter food source. Colorado’s lynx have learned to target a secondary food source, red squirrels, during times of snowshoe-hare scarcity.

In 2009, scat analysis suggested squirrels made up 66 percent of lynx diets, division researchers said.

“What we’ve seen from lynx in Colorado is exactly what we’d expect to see from lynx in their northern habitat,” said retired division biologist Tanya Shenk, the lead researcher on Colorado’s lynx project from 1999 to 2010. “This supports our strong belief that the habitat in Colorado will sustain lynx over the long term.”

Researchers have found successful lynx reproduction in at least six of the past eight years, including some third-generation kittens from Colorado-born lynx.

The first discovery of natural reproduction was 16 kittens in 2003, with another 39 found in 2004; 50 in 2005; 11 in 2006 and 2009; and this year’s 14.

The apparent lack of reproduction in 2007 and 2008 was blamed on the scarcity of snowshoe hares, whose population cycles are naturally cyclical.

Remington said the lynx project is one of the most ambitious and significant state-led reintroductions in recent years.

“The Division of Wildlife has a long tradition of restoring and recovering native species in Colorado,” he said. “This is a tradition that ranks among the division’s finest achievements. I applaud the wildlife professionals whose commitment and expertise have made the lynx project a success. Today is a proud day for the agency.”

He said the lynx program could be a model for a proposal to reintroduce wolverines to the state.


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