Published: January 2006
Of Lynx and Men: Scenes from a Homecoming
Cats transplanted from Canada are helping to repopulate the Colorado wilderness.
By Daniel Glick

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.

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.