Colorado lynx on reproduction roll
DENVER ” A state wildlife biologist said Tuesday it looks like another good year for lynx kittens in Colorado, with preliminary results showing “an excellent reproductive season.”
Biologists are wrapping up their search for newborns after more than 50 kittens were born the previous two years. The elusive, thick-furred mountain cats disappeared from Colorado in 1974 due to trapping, poisoning and development but are being restored with transplanted lynx from Canada.
Tanya Shenk, lead researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s lynx program, said an 11-member team has been hiking the rugged mountains of the southwestern part of the state since mid-May to look for dens. She planned to check on two more cats that might have had litters and expected a final estimate of kittens by the end of the week.
“It went very well. It was an excellent reproductive season,” Shenk said.
Last year, Shenk and others found 39 kittens, a year after at least 16 of the tuft-eared, big-pawed newborns were found.
State biologists anxiously waited for the cats to settle down and start reproducing after the first animals were released in 1999. Another major milestone in the quest to build a self-sustaining population will be proof that Colorado-born lynx are having kittens.
Shenk said female lynx born in 2003 would be able to have kittens. Trackers, though, failed to recapture any of those kittens so radio collars could be put on them.
Four females born last year were found later and fitted with collars.
The kittens are too small for the collars, but biologists implanted microchips under their skin. The microchips don’t allow the cats to be tracked by radio, but they can be identified with a hand-held scanner at close range. Biologists also take blood samples and a swab from the kittens’ mouths to get DNA.
Division of Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said team members narrow the search for dens by flying over areas where electronic monitoring indicates an adult female cat with a radio collar has settled in one spot. Biologists on the ground use tracking devices to further pinpoint sites.
Trackers then comb a roughly 100-yard-square area. Shenk said the heavy snows in southwestern Colorado made the task tougher this year because lynx usually make their dens on the north-facing slopes, where the snow takes longer to melt.
The team also had to contend with rivers and streams running higher and faster than normal because of the large snowpack.
The Wildlife Divisions has released 166 lynx in southwestern Colorado since the recovery program started. About 60 of the cats have died; some were shot, hit by cars or killed by other animals.
The lynx, a federally listed threatened species, are similar in size to bobcats, with male cats averaging 24 pounds and females averaging 20 pounds.
Unlike bobcats, lynx have long, fluffy, gray to tan hair and big, widespread paws that allow them to walk on snow.
Because Colorado was at the southernmost tip of the cat’s historic range, critics questioned the wisdom of trying to restore lynx to the state. The criticism grew louder when four of the first five lynx released starved to death, prompting immediate changes in the procedures.
Instead of releasing the lynx immediately, biologists kept them caged for about three weeks to fatten them up and freed them later in the winter when prey is more available.
In 2000, just one of 55 lynx died of starvation. That strengthened biologists’ belief that the rugged San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado are good lynx habitat.
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