Though she was caught on the British Columbia side of the border, she shipped out from the Yukon and would henceforth be known as YK00F10—the tenth Yukon female lynx caught in the year 2000 and brought to the United States. Before her odyssey was over, she would be anesthetized and examined five times, radio collared, released into the wild, recaptured, re-collared, and re-released. She would establish a new territory, meet a mate, give birth to ten first-generation American kittens, and pave the way for Lynx canadensis to reestablish residency where her species had once hovered on the brink of oblivion.
The life and times of YK00F10 embody the agonizingly complex issues facing U.S. wildlife managers in the 21st century. Her story would give hope to a reintroduction program that began in controversy, endured failure, and is now recognized as one of the most ambitious and thriving carnivore reintroductions in the nation.
Curiosity didn't kill Chilkat, as we'll call her (after her capture location). But it sent her on a long immigrant's journey to a new life in the southern Colorado Rockies.
Less than three years previously, in May 1997, the plan for a lynx reintroduction took form, as many good ideas will, over a campfire and a bottle of bourbon. On a raft trip along the Dolores River, six biologists and game wardens from the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) talked among themselves about animals that had disappeared in their lifetimes. They all knew the legend of the last definitive Colorado lynx sighting, an animal trapped illegally at Vail ski area in 1973. Since then, trackers had turned up about a dozen ephemeral lynx tracks without spotting any of the reclusive wildcats. Tonight the men planned to ask their director, John Mumma, for his support in bringing the lynx back.
Timing would be important for one biological reason and one political reason. Lynx exhibit one of the most predictable prey-predator relationships in nature, especially in northern Canada, where they're still abundant. Every ten years the snowshoe hares that lynx depend on for most of their food go through a dramatic population rise and crash. As they starve, so do the lynx. The Canadian bunnies were now heading toward their ten-year crash in the cycle, so lynx reintroduction would need to start soon or wait nearly a decade.
The political consideration was just as pressing. Rumors were flying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was about to list the lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. If the Feds listed the lynx, there would likely be all sorts of land-use restrictions that Colorado didn't want. But if the DOW had a lynx reintroduction program under way, maybe management would remain in the state's hands. Why not try it?