The story of lynx in Colorado starts long before there were any ski lifts or highways in the state. In fact, the snow-loving wild cats probably lived here even before the first bands of Stone Age humans roamed through the high country. For all we know, forests in the region may have been crawling with lynx at the end of the last ice age, when cool, moss-draped conifer forests covered big parts of what is now Colorado. But with human settlement came the seemingly inevitable conflict between nature and man. Any animal perceived as the slightest threat was ruthlessly eradicated – hunted, poisoned and trapped to the brink of extinction. It’s not clear how lynx fell into this category. The graceful tuft-eared hunters really specialize in small game, especially snowshoe hares. Maybe the early settlers and scouts simply saw the cats as competitors for the same game animals.
Records from old trading posts show that lynx were hunted relentlessly for decades. Finally, in 1972, a trapper in the mountains near Vail caught the last known wild lynx in the state. For 30 years, lynx were absent from high country forests, during an era when environmental consciousness bloomed into prominence with passage of key laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water and Clean Air acts — all adopted almost as emergency measures as people realized the extent of the damage already done in the short 100-year span of the industrial age. Those laws didn’t come out of thin air. They are a manifestation of the recognition that we are inextricably linked with the natural world around us. When we harm ecosystems, we’re ultimately hurting ourselves. This is no small thing.
For centuries, people saw the Earth as an inexhaustible warehouse of goods ripe for the taking, with humankind destined to exert dominion over all that is natural. The gradual realization that we have a moral and ethical obligation to be the stewards of the planet’s sustainability is really a radical departure that marks a shift in human evolution — a hopeful sign that we’ll find a place in the world in harmony with all other living things. And that makes the story of lynx in Colorado a story of redemption.
But before redemption, there has to be a fall, so flash back to 1998. Construction trucks bound for Blue Sky Basin are stalled on the forest roads on the front side of Vail Mountain. Environmental protestors, much to the chagrin of tourism officials, chain themselves to heavy equipment in what they already know is a futile bid to stop the development of new lifts and trails – called the Category 3 expansion. The prime ski terrain slated for development overlapped with what state wildlife biologists called some of the “last, best lynx habitat” in Colorado. That didn’t sit well with wildlife advocates, who wanted to see the area maintained as an undisturbed habitat. The land-use feud exploded into a fiery ending with a wasteful, dangerous and destructive arson attack against Vail Resorts. All the sordid details, including the subsequent nationwide eco-terrorist manhunt, have been well documented by the daily mainstream media — but what of the lynx?
Since those fateful days, the cats have reemerged and become one of the most studied species of wildlife in Colorado. Hundreds of lynx are being tracked via radio signals, showing their movements, where they build dens and raise kittens, and where they’re finding food. State wildlife biologists have mapped exactly where the lynx cross Interstate 70, and now know, from scouring fecal pellets, if the cats are finding their favored prey — snowshoe hare.
“What we’ve seen from lynx in Colorado is exactly what we’d expect to see from lynx in their northern habitat,” says former Colorado Division of Wildlife 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.” Biologist caution, however, that climate change, events such as wildfires and bark beetle epidemics along with future development could alter key portions of potential lynx habitat in Colorado in unforeseen ways.
A lynx restoration project started about the same time as the Vail protests and attack. For 10 years, biologists trapped male and female lynx in Canada and Alaska, shipped them to southwest Colorado, fattened them up in a holding area and then released them into the San Juan Mountains. After a few early setbacks the biologists quickly adapted their trans-location plans, giving the cats a bit more time in captivity before setting them free. The lynx thrived, finding abundant habitat across a big swath of the Colorado high country. Females found suitable den sites and mates and began producing kittens. In the summer, lone lynx set out to find new areas with good cover and plenty of food. After five years, the cats were regularly crossing I-70 in their northward forays, and setting up home ranges much farther north, especially in the Sawatch and Collegiate ranges, but also in the north-central mountains, first around Independence Pass and then even into the fringes of the I-70 resort zone, including the mountains around Vail.
In one remarkable case, a Canada lynx trekked from Colorado all the way back to its home in British Columbia, where it had been trapped the year before – an incredible “Homeward Bound” journey that gives one a feel for what these animals can achieve as magnificent long-distance alpine travelers. Skiers especially should appreciate the cats’ wide, fluffy paws, designed to float in the same spruce-sheltered powder glades favored by Colorado snow riders. Multiple generations of lynx have reproduced in the state at a rate that outpaces mortality, according to Colorado biologists who deemed the lynx restoration project a success.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials haven’t released any recent detailed population counts, but the massive amounts of biological data collected during the first 10-year phase suggest that lynx are here to stay at sustainable population levels, at least for the foreseeable future. “We’ve done everything necessary to restore lynx to Colorado,” says Rick Kahn, the retired 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.”
From 1999 to 2006, the DOW introduced a total of 218 lynx to Colorado. During the first 10 years of the program, biologists visited lynx den sites to count kittens, first documented in 2003. A year later, the monitoring teams counted 39 kittens, and then 50 in 2005. The numbers dropped dramatically the following two years, but the monitoring also began to show third-generation offspring, a sign of long-term sustainability.
Believe it or not, the policy debate over how to ensure the survival of Colorado’s lynx still continues. In September 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency responsible for listing threatened and endangered species) released a new critical habitat proposal for the species, completely leaving out Colorado even though the state now has one of the most robust lynx populations of any area south of Canada and Alaska. That decision triggered an instant announcement of a legal appeal by wildlife advocacy group, who will go back to federal court to try to force designation of critical habitat in Colorado. And nearly 15 years after listing the species as threatened, the federal agency still hasn’t finalized a recovery plan, which would spell out specific population levels that, if reached and maintained, would enable biologists to declare the cats as recovered.
But that bureaucratic limbo hasn’t stopped lynx from recolonizing Colorado’s mountains, including the verdant spruce and fir forests around Vail. Given the history of lynx in the state, it’s probably not surprising that wildlife managers don’t want to talk about the exact location of sightings in the mountains around the famed resort, but maps posted on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website make it clear that the species is back at home in the Gore Range, and the Holy Cross mountains, testament to our emerging conservation and restoration ethic, and to the tenacity of a species that once again prowls the powder-covered mountains of Colorado.