Lynx are back in Colorado, but still facing threats

Critical habitat designation still pending as conservation advocates push for more protection

U.S. Forest Service biologist checks motion sensor camera

Like many Colorado skiers, the state’s native lynx must also have enjoyed this past winter. Cruising along on their huge, tufted paws, the wild cats come into their own when the snow piles up soft and deep in high country spruce and fir forests.

Hiding out beneath dense overhangs of evergreen boughs during the day, then emerging at dawn or dusk to hunt, the threatened predators have made a huge comeback in the state, and they’re holding their own — but the job isn’t done yet, according to conservation advocates who want the federal government to designate critical habitat for the species.

But overall, the huge controversy sparked by the original 1999 endangered listing decision and simultaneous reintroduction program in Colorado has faded. If you’ve live in Colorado for more than 15 years you may remember the bitter battle over Vail Ski Area’s Blue Sky Basin (then called Category 3) expansion, as conservation advocates sought to prevent the resort from building lifts in what, at the time, was deemed to be one of the last best areas of lynx habitat in central Colorado. The fight culminated when some outof-state environmental extremists torched lodges and lifts at Vail in a dangerous arson attack that didn’t help lynx a single bit.

It turns out that the cats have managed to reclaim some habitat around Vail, including Vail Pass, which remains a crucial corridor for lynx moving into new territories.

Most recently, wildlife biologists estimate that there are probably a couple of hundred lynx living in Colorado, mostly concentrated in the San Juans, but with strong population pockets in other areas, including around Summit County and Vail, as well as Aspen, and even as far north as Rocky Mountain National Park.

The cats that were brought in from Canada and Alaska in the early 2000s quickly started breeding and since then, several generations of native-born lynx have been carving out their own territories in the mountains of Colorado. But since state biologists stopped monitoring the cats via expensive electronic tracking gear, they really don’t have a solid handle on exactly how many of the cats survive each year and how many kittens are born each spring.

Wild west 

To tell the lynx story, it’s best to start in Colorado’s wild west settlement era, when trappers, ranchers and hunters were prone to shooting at nearly everything they saw. Lynx were probably never super abundant to begin with in Colorado. The North American population thrives across parts of Canada and Alaska in a subarctic ecosystem, although other subspecies (like the Iberian lynx) have adapted to warmer and drier conditions.

But historic records show that, for a few decades at the end of the 1800s, trappers were bringing lynx pelts to trading posts on a regular basis, until, suddenly, like the Lorax’s truffula trees, they were all but wiped out. Throughout the 1900s there were very few reports of lynx until the “last” known was killed by trappers near Vail in the 1970s.

Life continued in Colorado. Lynx aren’t crucial apex predators like wolves that control entire ecosystems from the top down. Still, a handful of forward-thinking state biologists decided that the cats should be restored to the landscape. As legend has it, the scientists hatched their plan during a summer raft trip, won legislative approval and wrangled up some funding (including $200,000 in seed money from Vail Resorts) and started working with trappers in Canada and Alaska to capture males and females for release in the San Juans, near Creede.

The first couple of years were rough, as many of the lynx simply starved to death before they could get comfortable in their new home. Biologists quickly shifted gears, keeping the lynx in captivity for a few weeks and making sure they were well fed before releasing them. The new tactics paid off, as the cats started reproducing in the early 2000s. Ten years later, biologists said lynx were reproducing at a rate that outpaced mortality — the hallmark of a successful recovery program.

What lies ahead?

But there are still some big questions, including climate change and the massive forest die-off that started about the same time that lynx started their comeback. In central and northern Colorado, that could result in vast new areas of good habitat, but not for about 20 to 30 years, when lodgepole forests are partially regrown. Meanwhile, the spreading spruce beetle infestation in the San Juans may be having a big effect on lynx habitat in the area that’s been a stronghold for the cats from day one.

Without a surefire way to track the cats, there’s no definitive way to know how many cats are roaming around out there.

“Without collars, it’s all anecdotal,” says Bill Andree, a Vail-based wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “They’re definitely living in some of the drainages south of I-70, and we’ve had reproduction in the county. … But they haven’t spread to everywhere we thought they would.”

Interstate-70 is still a big barrier to northward movement, he adds.

And while lynx sightings have been reported from a number of ski areas, including Breckenridge, Keystone and Telluride, Andree says he’s not aware of any sightings in the vicinity of Vail Mountain, so it’s still not clear if the Blue Sky Basin expansion affected the cats’ ability to live in that area.

“We don’t have all the answers yet. My thoughts on wildlife have always been that it’s easier to err on the side of protection,” Andree says.

Whether or not lynx will get any protected critical habitat in Colorado will be decided in the next few months, as federal biologists finalize their latest version of a plan that has already faced legal challenges for not living up to the Endangered Species Act.

“There was a lot we didn’t know 15 years ago and there’s been a lot of good research,” says Jim Zelenak, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who is leading the lynx planning process for the agency charged with protecting endangered species.

“We know more about lynx habitat requirements, but there’s still some vagueness. The bottom line is, they are dependent on snowshoe hare populations. We don’t know of any lynx populations that can persist without snowshoe hares,” Zelenak says, adding that the federal agency is still trying to determine whether the best available science supports a critical habitat designation in Colorado.

In Colorado, biologists will launch a new push to understand lynx population dynamics next fall by using remote automated cameras, combined with tracking, to determine habitat occupancy. The new method won’t give an exact county, but will help conservation biologists understand if the cats are using areas thought to be good habitat.