Colorado lynx status unknown as state, federal agencies start studies
After lynx disappeared in Colorado in the 1970s and were reintroduced in 1999, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials can’t say whether the big-footed felines are thriving or in decline.
“We don’t really know. We think they’re doing pretty well out there,” said Joe Lewandowski, an agency spokesman, but “it’s not like deer or elk where we can fly around and see them.”
Biologists tracked the original 218 cats released in the San Juan Mountains with radio collars and searched spring dens for kittens for years. Then in 2010, the researchers stopped monitoring the state’s lynx populations when most of the collars had died.
Parks and Wildlife announced last week that it started a 10-year monitoring project that will determine population trends using remote cameras, field observations and sample collections.
“This type of long-term monitoring program has never been done in the United States. This may give us information that no one has ever had,” said Scott Wait, the senior terrestrial biologist for CPW’s southwest region in Durango.
Wait is leading the project with Jake Ivan, a CPW mammals researcher, and Eric Odell, a species conservation coordinator.
Meanwhile, federal wildlife officials are reviewing threats facing lynx to provide better protection for the animals. Lynx were designated as threatened, or likely to become extinct, under the Endangered Species Act about 15 years ago due to inadequate protections on federal forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced Jan. 13 that it is seeking input from the scientific community and the general public for a status review of the species and will rely on insights from Colorado.
Slightly larger than bobcats on average, Canada lynx weigh roughly 20 pounds and have longer legs. The cats’ big furry paws act like snowshoes when chasing their primary food source, snowshoe hares.
The specialized predators are native to Colorado and are adapted for snowy, high-altitude environments with boreal forests. Lewandowski said they live above 8,000 feet and are mostly found between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.
Summit County could be home to lynx though the cats are rarely seen.
“We know that there are cats in the Central Mountains,” he said, but the study will be in the San Juan Mountains, where cats from Alaska and Canada were reintroduced from 1999 to 2006.
That area was originally chosen because it has the fewest number of roads in the state, provides a large swath of high-altitude forest with good winter snow cover and supports a sizeable population of snowshoe hares.
By 2010, the agency called the lynx reintroduction a success. Biologists found that reproduction was steady, lynx were finding adequate food and offspring of transplanted lynx had reproduced and were surviving.
“Reintroducing lynx was one of the most significant projects of this agency, and it’s important that we continue with this follow-up work,” Wait said.
The new monitoring program began in the fall with a two-year pilot phase to test its methods. Fieldwork will be done from January through March because winter is the best time to find tracks and photograph lynx.
Within the roughly 5,400-square-mile monitoring area, 50 randomly selected plots, each about 30 square miles, were chosen as survey sites.
In 32 of those plots, 128 motion- and heat-sensitive cameras will photograph lynx. Each summer the cameras will be retrieved so the images can be examined.
Officials said the winter snow-tracking work will be the most grueling and time-consuming part of the operation. Field crews on skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles will visit the 18 accessible plots three times every winter to search for lynx tracks, hair and scat.
Fur and feces will be tested genetically to create a database of individual animals, but biologists won’t attempt to count them. Rather, they’ll use the data to determine the portion of the study area occupied by lynx.
This method of wildlife monitoring is known as an occupancy study. As the study progresses, biologists will be able to determine if the lynx population is stable, increasing or decreasing and whether it has cyclic variations likely timed with fluctuations in snowshoe hare populations.
While initially the study will be restricted to southwest Colorado, it might eventually be expanded to include other areas of the state.
To learn more about lynx, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Web page at http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/SpeciesProfiles.aspx or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web page at http://bit.ly/CanadaLynxUSFWS.
To submit specific comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service about lynx habitat, population trends, threats facing the species or conservation efforts, write to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Ecological Services Field Office, Attn: Jim Zelenak, 585 Shepard Way, Suite 1, Helena, MT 59601.
The federal service requests that pertinent information be provided by Feb. 1 to ensure adequate time to consider it before a report is finalized in June.
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