by Chuck McGuire
Like the spring weather itself, emotions ran the full gamut, as we readied for the release of four more Canada lynx into the wilds of Colorado.
Ordinarily, the jaunt from our house to Southfork takes the better part of an hour, but an icy spring storm at home almost certainly meant heavy snow over the pass. As we packed lunches and loaded the truck, I wondered if we’d make it there at all, let alone in time to meet up with the Division of Wildlife.
As expected, the further we traveled toward the Wolf Creek summit, the heavier the weather and whiteout conditions. Plows worked to keep up, but the road was slick, and the driving treacherous. At one point, we stopped to check on the driver of a jackknifed semi, who appeared fine, other than obviously shaken, as he waited for a tow and eventual rescue.
Proceeding on, we took our time in four-wheel-drive, and eventually dropped into Southfork without incident. Surprisingly, the roads there were dry under partly-sunny skies, with only a gale-force wind marring the otherwise clement surroundings.
We met several DOW personnel at a prearranged place, and in fact, arrived with time to spare. Before long, TV film crews, ecologists, conservationists, and others arrived, some from as far away as Nebraska, and once a sizable group had assembled, DOW director Bruce McCloskey addressed the crowd.
He thanked all for coming, and acknowledged several who worked to make the lynx reintroduction program a reality. At once, he presented division biologist Scott Wade, who then explained the wild and timid nature of the four cats being released. Wade further described their confinement since capture (over the past three months), including minimal human exposure, and asked that everyone, upon arriving at the release site, respect them with orderliness and quiet.
With proper instructions and a general air of elation, we formed a motorcade of 20 vehicles or more, and drove nearly an hour to a stretch of forest road a few miles short of the release site. We parked there, piled into the back of a few DOW trucks, and were taken to within a hundred yards of four canvas-covered “nest boxes” the cats had called home since Christmas. Again, we were asked to remain silent, as we zealously moved to within a few yards of the metal crates and their precious cargo.
The neatly-spaced boxes were placed facing a broad clearing, beyond which sheer mountains rose sharply to the south. Covered by dense coniferous forest ”• except for a few long and relatively narrow avalanche chutes ”• the precipitous summits held a good population of snowshoe hares, and would hopefully make fine homes for the single male and three females, all originally from the forests of British Columbia.
Meanwhile, the weather had improved to spring-like conditions, with bright sun, mild temperatures and moderate breezes. As all assumed positions, readied cameras and waited for handlers to open the first box, I glanced toward the vast high-country, wondering just where four misplaced felines might settle in for the night. I wondered how far they’d roam and how soon food would be a necessity. Like virtually all in attendance, I feared for their safety and quietly wished them well.
Suddenly, without fanfare, three people approached the first box, cautiously removed its canvas cover and gently raised the door. I held my breath, aimed the Olympus and watched as the first of four surprisingly large cats slowly emerged from its transitory confinement. In an instant, as the wary beast first glanced at the audience, then recognized freedom, it bounded off to the nearest of trees and soon disappeared into the forest beyond.
The remaining flights mirrored the first. Again and again, in quiet succession, as a door slowly opened and another captive sensed deliverance, it too, leapt over the snow, in a beeline to the far end of the meadow and the cover of woods.
The entire affair lasted but a few minutes, yet all stood fast for a long moment, as if expecting the four to return for an encore performance. I, too, waited and watched, hoping against hope for one final glance.
But the stately cats were gone, leaving only four lines of tracks, as they set off for new digs in another chapter of life. If all goes well, each may live another decade or more, and perhaps collectively, they’ll parent dozens of offspring.
Before heading to the trucks and eventually toward home, many of us gathered round McCloskey, as he again acknowledged the many involved in the day’s release and the lynx program overall. He thanked vice-chair Tom Burke of the Colorado Wildlife Commission for participating, and expressed gratitude to attending members of Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Combined, they have contributed two-thirds of the nearly $6 million spent on the project since 1997.
As the director recognized the U.S. Forest Service and others for their vital roles in the project, I thought of the DOW and the tireless work of its own staff, never mind the $2 million it has invested. I mulled its progress and considered the uncertainties, and wondered, aside from nature, what could possibly derail the endeavor. Of course, the answer was obvious…unfettered human expansion, habitat fragmentation, poaching; in other words, mankind itself.
At once, I asked Director McCloskey when the public could expect the division to issue an official stance on the proposed Village at Wolf Creek, particularly in light of the enormous effort and expense in the reintroduction so far, and the fact that the proposed development sits squarely in the middle of the bulk of lynx activity, as indicated by satellite telemetry.
After pretending to pick up a snowball with the intent of throwing it at someone, he chuckled and said, “Well, there’s a lot we don’t know right now. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re working to get them, and we’re providing comments to the various agencies involved. I’m hopeful that consideration of the lynx project will be part of the equation when deciding on the approval of the proposed village.”
In the meantime, according to the DOW’s lead field researcher Tanya Shenk, “The cats are doing very well, and Colorado offers good habitat. While most hold tight for awhile following release, they have great dispersal abilities and can do well in a-typical habitat too.”
Shenk explained that once the cats are captured in Canada or Alaska, they’re held for about three months before being released. She described initial concerns with possible human acclimation or muscle atrophy, “But,” she said, “we’ve minimized human exposure and fed them mostly rabbits, carnivore diet or roadkill, and we’ve had none of these problems. They’re really mellow cats.”
Shenk cautions that it’s too soon to know how successful the program will be, but suggests the strong natural reproduction rate over the past three years leaves room for optimism. “At this point, no-one knows what the optimum number of lynx in Colorado will be,” she said. “We’ll see how they do.”
After this April release, the DOW plans to release another 10 lynx soon, and perhaps 15 a year, the next two years. Since 1999, a total of 204 cats have been reintroduced, with 105 known kittens born in the wild since the spring of 2003. Today, biologists estimate between 150 and 200 lynx are now roaming the Colorado mountains.
Chuck McGuire is an outdoors writer and columnist for the Pagosa Springs (Colo.) Sun, where this article first appeared.