Summit Outside: Lynx – A nice success story
January 23, 2011
I have been trying to figure out why this one animal, the lynx, has provoked so much emotion and controversy. In Oct. 1998, the so-called Earth Liberation Front set fire to five buildings and four ski lifts in Vail, causing more than $12 million in damage, because they claimed “a proposed expansion project at the ski resort would ruin lynx habitat” – thus spawning the term “ecoterrorism.” The bottom line is that the lynx seem to be thriving, reproducing and meeting the expectations of the wildlife biologists in spite of the rebuilding of the Vail buildings, and expansion.
From 1990-2006, Colorado Division of Wildlife launched the high profile reintroduction program, bringing a total of 218 lynx to southwest Colorado. These animals were captured in Alaska and various Canadian provinces and released in the San Juan Mountains, Gunnison and Eagle County, and about 50 of them were tracked with radio collars. The Colorado lynx project has been among the most controversial carnivore reintroductions ever conducted. The challenges of reintroducing a northern species to the southern limits of their range raised questions about the merit of conservation efforts and expenditures to restore endangered populations in areas under negative effects of climate change. The Colorado lynx project, as a result, has been criticized for “shoveling sand; pouring high numbers of lynx into an area of poor habitat ‘quality’, when better use of conservation dollars could be achieved.” However results show substantially higher survival in core reintroduction areas than expected. Ironically, what is remarkable about this massive reintroduction effort is that after seven years, over 47 percent of the reintroduced lynx had died, mostly from human causes, not habitat-related causes. Approximately 30 percent of lynx were killed by humans on roads or through hunting. Also importantly, 10 percent or so of lynx starved to death, similar to starvation levels in northern lynx in the Yukon linked to low cycles of the snowshoe hare population. The Division of Wildlife has currently predicted that the lynx population in the core area should be able to sustain itself at existing densities with no further augmentation, assuming the patterns of annual reproduction and survival continue at the current rate. Colorado lynx are now in their third generation. A nice success story!
So, the reintroduction goals and benchmarks have been achieved and the lynx seem to be surviving and reproducing. Lynx have been observed in the area between Copper Mountain and Vail, and in Summit County. They have been photographed on the Tenmile Range, at the edge of a trail in the Breckenridge Ski Area and one was hit by a car on Highway 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco.
How do you identify a lynx? They are very similar in size to a bobcat. They are about 20-30 pounds, but they have very big feet, ear tufts and the tip of their short tail looks like it has been dipped in black ink. Lynx appear to be stooping over, because their hind legs are slightly longer than their front legs. Its hair is grayish brown during the winter and reddish brown in the summer, and it does not have the bobcat’s distinctive spots and striping. The tracks of the lynx are almost the size of a small mountain lion – about 2-3.5 inches (like the size of an adult human hand), and the stride is about 13 inches while that of the mountain lions is 20 inches.
Lynx stalk their prey alone and are good runners, swimmers and climbers. They will occasionally hunt cooperatively with other lynx. They may also ambush their prey, as a mountain lion does. Snowshoe hares make up about 80 percent of their diet, but when hares are scarce they will prey on other small animals and birds. Lynx occasionally capture and eat young deer, elk and even moose.
Lynx bed down under ledges, trees, or in caves. In bad weather they may nestle under thick spruce trees or construct rough shelters under fallen trees or rock ledges. After a nine-week gestation period, female lynx called “she-cats” give birth to kits in the spring. Between one and four lynx kits are born with fur, but are blind, and with their ears closed. When lynx kits are about 10 months old, they separate from their parents and hunt on their own.
The name “lynx” originated in Middle English and means “light, and brightness,” referring to the luminescence of the animals’ reflective eyes. In mythology, the lynx is an elusive, ghost-like animal that sees without being seen. It is “the keeper of secrets of the forest,” and its magical appearance stems from the mystery that such a creature’s secrecy can also be its strength. Lynx have captured the imagination of humans, such that name has been used frequently in disambiguation (articles associated with the same title). I just learned that word! It has been used for example by sports teams (WNBA, Minnesota Lynx), ships, places, mythology, computing, aircraft and aviation.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology
Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.