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Lynx once tolerably common in Colorado Rockies

Sidebar by Allen Best

Wildlife – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Lynx seem never to have been abundant in the Southern Rockies, an area of high country that sprawls beyond Colorado into bordering areas of Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah. This is the southern edge of range for the lynx, who are more common in areas near the Canadian border.

However, that’s not to say that lynx were historically rare. In parts of Colorado, according to a wildlife survey completed in 1911 by the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the lynx were “rapidly decreasing” while in other areas, including regions near today’s I-70 corridor, they were still “tolerably common.” The survey had no numerical estimates.

Adding confusion to the counting was the habit of early settlers to call bobcats “lynx cats.” That was the name used by President Theodore Roosevelt, during his hunting foray near Glenwood Springs in 1905. In fact, his guides indicated the “lynx cats” were bobcats.

A later effort to aid ranchers by exterminating predators was more careful about separating lynx and bobcats. In 1923 the bureau proudly reported that its poison-baited meat traps had resulted in the death of 2,812 coyotes, 297 bobcats, and 97 lynx in Colorado. That the two cats were distinguished suggests trappers knew the difference. Although use of poison was later banned, trapping continued until the late 1960s and may have been a major cause of the decline of lynx.

Colorado’s last known native lynx were all killed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including one near Bakerville, one near Leadville, and one adjacent to the Vail ski area.

In the latter case, a trapper who was riding a chairlift saw two lynx. He returned to set an illegal trap, which killed one. In the late 1980s and even until the reintroduction was started, wildlife researchers and others continued to find paw prints in the snow that they believed had been made by lynx. However, they could never find the equivalent of a smoking gun.

The Colorado ski industry supported the transplant, arguing that it would be better to clearly know the needs of lynx than to guess. Guiding that position was the likelihood that the lynx would be given protection under the nation’s Endangered Species Act.

That listing finally occurred in March 2000, making the lynx “threatened” in 16 states from the Pacific Northwest to New England. The listing was expected to cause significant management changes on federal lands, where nearly all ski areas in the Rocky Mountains are located. Specific impacts of those changes, however, are not entirely clear.