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Return of the Lynx
JANUARY 2006
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Return of the Lynx @ National Geographic Magazine
By Daniel Glick
Photographs by Amy Toensing
Cats transplanted from Canada are helping to repopulate the Colorado wilderness.

[Curiosity caught the cat]
As was her habit, the three-year-old female lynx padded solo through the deep snow in the Chilkat Pass area near the Yukon–British Columbia border, prowling for prey. She spied a movement and pounced across a willow patch, but the red squirrel scampered up a tree. Then, drawn toward a compelling scent of beaver castor, catnip, glycerin, and valerian oil, mixed with herbal massage oil and infused with a couple drops of Clorox bleach, she floated on her oversize paws through the three-foot-deep snow and stepped lightly over a tree limb to investigate the smell. Dripping saliva, she chewed a branch coated with the fragrant paste.

Suddenly something gripped her leg, jolting her out of her blissful, drooling state. Bolting in fear and confusion, she leaped, twisted, and lunged for cover. Each time she moved, she dragged a cumbersome log, now wired to her left forefoot. She huddled warily, her tufted, pointy ears trained toward any sound that would reveal what awaited her.

Trapper Lance Goodwin found the lynx caught in his snare the next morning, February 27, 2000, lying in a patch of winter sun. He anesthetized her and drove her 160 miles to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. There a veterinarian noticed a puncture wound from a stick and amputated part of the third toe on her left forefoot. Other than that she was a healthy, 17-pound lynx, just under three feet long.

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?

Mumma, a veteran of brutal political skirmishes from his years at the U.S. Forest Service, thought he'd left behind this kind of "sack full of rattlesnakes." Reintroducing predators was always dicey, he knew—both biologically and politically. But Westerners' attitudes about predators were changing: Public support for the two-year-old Yellowstone wolf reintroduction was running pretty darned high, and the previous year in Colorado voters had outlawed wildlife trapping and poisoning.

Mumma also knew that lynx were astoundingly beautiful and mysterious creatures. They belonged here. "OK, then," he said. "Let's do it, and let's make it work."

Armed with the chief's blessing, the group fanned out to orchestrate the lynx's return. Rick Kahn, the DOW's wildlife management supervisor, lobbied relentlessly, both in and out of the agency, trying to convince an array of skeptics that reintroducing the lynx was a good idea: ranchers who congenitally hated carnivores, loggers and ski operators worried about development restrictions, animal rights activists, and biologists who argued that Colorado offered marginal lynx habitat. Even inside the DOW some worried that the project was hastily conceived and amounted to a "dump and pray."

Finally executives at Vail, embroiled in a controversial proposed expansion of the resort, ponied up $250,000. Kahn had argued that having a viable lynx population on the ground was better than having the Endangered Species Act hanging over their heads.

Next Kahn brought DOW researcher Tanya Shenk onto the team. The lynx could not have been adopted by a more tenacious and dedicated den mother. Shenk knew that an Adirondacks reintroduction in the late 1980s had failed. But Colorado had more places where wild things still were, and the animals stood a better chance here. Or so she hoped.

The DOW contracted with Canadian trappers to bring lynx to Colorado and constructed holding pens in the southern part of the state. On January 29, 1999, the first of 41 lynx from British Columbia arrived.

["Hey, you're free"]
On a warm midwinter day on the east side of the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains, the first lynx released into Colorado didn't seem to realize how historic she was. With the press peering on, DOW biologist Gene Byrne ceremoniously slid open the door of a metal cage.

Nothing happened. The lynx sat in her straw nest inside the cage for several minutes, perhaps intimidated by the row of telephoto lenses trained on her. Byrne tilted the cage, leaned down, and spoke softly: "Hey, you're free."

The lynx waited one moment more, then stepped out cautiously and padded through the snow into the Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir forests that would be her new home. Byrne and other DOW officials were elated. "They're back," said Byrne, red-lettering February 3, 1999, in his mind.

A second female released that same day near the headwaters of the Rio Grande was less reluctant, leaving a snow shower behind as she fled into the wilderness. The next day, one yearling male and another female followed, completing the first quartet of transplanted lynx. Reinforcements would arrive soon.

The task for these first four lynx, quite simply, was to go forth and multiply.

Instead, they died.
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