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Return of the Lynx
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Return of the Lynx

By Daniel Glick
Photographs by Amy Toensing

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The first mortality signal came from the yearling male's radio collar in three weeks: no movement, dead of starvation. Two females also starved to death, and DOW officials recaptured the fourth new recruit in terrible shape. They halted new releases to re-evaluate their protocols, and the remaining Canadian cats sat in pens awaiting freedom.

The lynx team agonized. Trackers had reported plenty of snowshoe hares in southwestern Colorado. Was it that the lynx couldn't adjust to the high altitude? Were the wildcats just too high-strung to endure this kind of stress? They decided to hold the animals longer and fatten them up before release. They also decided to keep them isolated in captivity through the mating period in February and March so that no recently released females would have to deal with the added stress of breeding and pregnancy in their first months in the wild. Also there would be more prey in the spring, and the harshest winter weather would have passed.

With the new protocols in place, they released more lynx. But more died, though only a few from starvation. By the time the releases in 1999 were tallied, 17 of 41 lynx were dead, likely killed by hunters, cars, or disease, and the program was in jeopardy.

Next year they would try again.

[When Chilkat met Larry]
Chilkat, who'd put on five pounds during her month of captivity, seized her opportunity to take to the woods as soon as her cage door opened. On April 2, 2000, she fled into the spruce-fir forest and crossed the frozen Rio Grande.

Thirteen other lynx were released that day. One was YK00M6, a 27-pound male captured a week after Chilkat near the town of Carmacks, also in southern Yukon. He had roomed in pen number 19 next to Chilkat at the holding facility. Although there were strict rules against anthropomorphizing the animals, YK00M6 later earned the moniker Larry, after the smart-mouthed lynx on the Frontier Airlines commercial. Larry was a yowler.

Unlike some lynx that ended up going on long walkabouts as far away as Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, both Chilkat and Larry stayed pretty close to home. They probably smelled urine markings left by the 1999 releases—an important signpost, which those first lynx didn't have, that fellow wildcats lived in this habitat. Although lynx don't travel in packs, Chilkat and Larry crossed paths repeatedly with other lynx that spring and early the next winter.

There were no kittens from the 1999 and 2000 groups, but there was evidence of decent survival rates. Then in February 2003 Larry began his mating yowls and pursued Chilkat until she accepted his advances. Six-legged tracks stretching along a 50-yard stretch of rototilled snow bore witness to their strenuous coupling.

[We have kits]
Tracks on the ground and aerial reconnaissance in February and March indicated that several possible mating pairs had found each other at the critical time. Then the DOW lynx team caught a break. Bob Dickman, riding in the copilot's seat of a Cessna 185 and holding a receiver that could pick up the radio collars' VHF signals, was looking out for females that had stayed in the same spot since his previous flight. In late May he finally got such a signal and immediately radioed Shenk, who was coordinating ground crews ready to swoop in. "She's either dead, or she's in a den," Dickman said. Shenk and her team headed toward Dickman's coordinates. It was a den, with two kits inside.

After that, a kitten deluge. The third den they found was Chilkat's; she'd given birth to the only kit quartet. After documenting Chilkat's litter, Shenk and her team raced from den to den, recording other kits' weight and sex, and placing an identity tag just under the skin between their shoulder blades. "We turned into kitten junkies," says Shenk. "We were just flying."

At the summer solstice, 16 first-generation Colorado lynx kits had their pale blue eyes open to their new home. "There's nothing like a kitten in your hand to say success," says Shenk.

By the time the first snow fell that fall, two of Chilkat's four kits had perished—possibly killed by coyotes or plague. But she and her two survivors roamed the woods together, hunting snowshoe hares. The trio moved with ease up steep, snowy slopes, napping nestled in shallow day beds in the snow. They followed snowmobile tracks and crossed roads, alternately stalking, pouncing, eating, playing, and sleeping.

By the following February, Larry's yowls reminded Chilkat that mating season had begun, and she sent her kits off on their own.

In June she returned to the same log where she had made her first Colorado den and gave birth to two more kits. The 2004 denning bonanza more than doubled the previous year's lynx crop: Shenk and her team documented 39 new Colorado felines.

[Keep 'em coming]
Last summer Chilkat gave birth to four more kits. But many obstacles remain for the Colorado lynx. The number of people in the state has doubled since the last known lynx was killed in 1973, bringing more development, more recreation in the forest, and more traffic. Still, the trend lines for the Colorado immigrants are encouraging: 46 kits were documented last year, and there's a high likelihood that some uncollared females have also given birth. The DOW accounted for at least 170 surviving lynx overall, and successful repeat breeders like Chilkat show every indication of continuing the trend. Chilkat's 2004 kits were radio collared early last year and stand poised to give birth to a second-generation lynx crop this year in June.

"We need the kittens to have kittens," says Shenk.

The plan now is to release about a dozen new lynx each year for the next three, but, Shenk says, "It'll be 15 or 20 years before we can say it's a success. We're not home free yet."

After Shenk and her team left Chilkat's den, the lynx took each of her four kittens by the scruff of the neck and moved them to another site. From the new den in the southern Rockies, hidden in the fallen timber of a north-facing slope, she would begin to teach the kits how to stalk, pounce, and make a living in their native land of Colorado.

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