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Big paws at heart of some lynx controversies

Sidebar by Allen Best

Wildlife – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Canada lynx are similar in appearance to bobcats, which remain common although rarely seen in Colorado. They weigh 18 to 44 pounds, or two to three times the size of a house cat. They measure three or four feet long, not counting their tails.

Lynx differ from bobcats in two key ways. First, clumps of dark hair, called tufts, extend Mr. Spock-like from their ears.

Second, and more important, their ecological niche is different. Their paws are as broad as a cat three times its size. These broad paws allow the lynx to stay afloat in soft powder snow, giving them an edge in chasing snowshoe hare and other prey. Bobcats, coyotes, and other predators of the hare are more stump-footed, and hence they flounder more easily in soft snow.

What gives lynx purchase to a narrow ecological niche could also complicate use of the federal lands for everything from backcountry huts to snowmobilers. According to the theory embraced by many wildlife biologists, snowmobile tracks and even ski or snowshoe tracks can be used by competing predators, such as coyotes, to gain access to remote backcountry locations.

That, in effect, allows coyotes access to snowshoe hare that would otherwise be the ticket meal for lynx.

In 2000 the Canada lynx was listed as threatened under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. To date, no projects in this area have been blocked because of the lynx listing. However, the looming listing helped cause modification of Vail’s Blue Sky Basin expansion in several ways.

One area, Commando Bowl, was put off-limits to skiing, because it contains possible lynx denning habitat. Potential for lynx also indirectly caused a requirement that brush not be removed from the ski trails, to allow continued habitat for animals below the snow surface. As a result, Vail Resorts has not opened Blue Sky Basin in the early season. When it presented the expansion to the public in the mid-1990s, the company said it was needed primarily for early and late season skiing.