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The Lynx between Unlikely Allies

Article by Allen Best

Wildlife – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

RESTORATION OF THE LYNX into Colorado has been riddled with ironies, beginning with Gene Byrne.

“They’re back,” he proclaimed as he opened the gate on February 3 to allow the first lynx to lope through the snow south of Creede, on the edge of the San Juan Mountains.

Byrne, a state wildlife biologist, had carefully avoided touching the lynx. He did so at a workshop in Avon last year, and then rubbed his eyes. Within two hours his eyes were nearly swollen shut.

“I don’t really like house cats,” admits Byrne, “but I sure do like these wild ones.”

Allergies are just the beginning of the ironies swirling around this attempt to restore another piece of Colorado’s environment.

Politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows. Look at this lineup.

Cattlemen and sheep grazers from small mountain towns allied with biological diversity proponents from Boulder. Their interests were very different, but their language was identical. Not enough study has been done, they said in unison.

And then there were outfitters who guide hunters and fishermen into the high mountains. Outfitters protested the presumed starvation of lynx, and Boulder animal-rights activist Marc Beckoff used identical language: “Sure, animals do starve to death in the wild,” he wrote after two of the first five released lynx starved, “but starvation brought about due to human translocation efforts simply is unacceptable.”

Beckoff conducted a candlelight vigil for the lynx on Pearl Street. The vigil had to be postponed for a night because of high winds.

WINDY DESCRIBES SOME of the legal skirmishing, too. The livestock grazers claimed that releasing lynx would trigger a significant modification of federal lands in the Colorado high country. They fear livestock will get kicked out of the forest.

“We’re most concerned about our ranchers being able to run cattle up there,” says Bob Frankmore, associate director of government affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau. That group was among four which tried, and failed, to get a court injunction to stop the re-introduction of lynx. They claimed federal environmental laws required the lynx re-introduction to get a formal analysis and present an Environmental Impact Statement.

For their argument to stick, the U.S. Forest Service would have to accept responsibility for re-introducing the lynx. It won’t. Wildlife, by law, is the state’s job.

Habitat, however, is the federal government’s job, and critics say that without changes in how the Forest Service administers its 13.9 million acres of National Forest in Colorado, the lynx might well be doomed. Since lynx in Colorado live almost exclusively above 8,000 feet, most of them will be on Forest Service land.

Before U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Y. Daniel refused an emergency injunction, the lawyer for the livestock grazers, William Perry Pendley, managed to grasp at all available straws. At one point he painted the possibility of introduced lynx nabbing all the would-be bighorn sheep rams, eventually killing off the Colorado state animal.

Ironically, the bighorn sheep had to be augmented, just like the lynx, after nearly disappearing 30 years ago.

Yet another delicious irony is that the ski industry and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, who are sometimes brawling antagonists, have been snuggling between the sheets for this lynx re-introduction. Vail Associates, in fact, has pledged $200,000, better even than the $130,000 provided by state lottery proceeds. Ted Turner may yet be asked to pitch in for lynx and wolverine re-introduction.

The lynx and Vail ski expansion have nearly become synonymous. When planning began in about 1986 for Vail’s expansion into Category III terrain, ski area planners were told that lynx habitat would be a significant issue. Why not just re-introduce the lynx? asked one mountain planner.

That got state wildlife biologists thinking, and it dovetailed nicely with the agency’s 20-year-old program of restoring components of the state’s ecosystems.

That doesn’t mean olive branches all around. Internal memos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act also revealed that state wildlife biologists argued for a hardened stance on expansion. They lost. But in several essential truths, the state’s ski industry and the state wildlife biologists are in concert.

“We will be able to make decisions about the lynx based on actual information, as opposed to wild speculation about what their needs might be,” says Melanie Mills, Colorado Ski Country USA executive vice president for public policy.

“We have done something like 15 studies in the last 20 years, mostly to find and locate lynx,” says state wildlife biologist Byrne. “The first thing we must do is understand why lynx can or can’t survive in Colorado, and we never had a chance to study them 100 years ago. We’re getting a second chance now.”

The most expensive part of the re-introduction will be airplane time, to monitor the whereabouts of the 100 radio-collared lynx to be released this winter. Two of the first five released died of starvation, which fit in with the expected 50% mortality.

Finally, we get to the wolf lurking in the background. It’s a figurative and perhaps literal symbol of full-ecosystem restoration. Take out the name “lynx” and insert “wolf” in many of these discussions and you will read a more honest dialogue.

OFFICIALLY, THE LARGEST indigenous carnivores disappeared from Colorado long ago. The death certificate for the grizzly bear was proclaimed after government trapper Lloyd Anderson killed one in 1952 near the head of the Los Piños River, south of Gunnison.

The proclamation was premature. In 1979 a bleeding outfitter, Ed Wiseman, crawled away after stabbing to death an aging sow in mountains close to the New Mexico border. Considerable anecdotal evidence, best reported in Doug Peterson’s book Ghost Grizzlies, remains that grizzlies survive there yet, although too few to sustain a population.

Officially, the Colorado Wildlife Commission opposed re-introduction of the grizzly in a policy adopted in 1977 and reiterated in 1982. During that time Malcolm Forbes, the publishing magnate, offered to release grizzly bears on his land along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Alamosa.

Owners of adjacent ranches raised no objections. The state, however, rejected the idea, as it did a similar plan to re-introduce grizzlies into the San Juan Mountains.

You hear few people today advocating restoration of grizzlies. Colorado, with 4.5 million people, many of whom want to be everywhere, all the time, just isn’t the place for flesh-ripping ursus arctos horribilis, say even staunch wildlife defenders.

WOLVES PRESENT a different story, though. A government agent is believed to have killed the last wolf in 1943, near Conejos, once again close to the New Mexico border. Nothing has emerged since then to refute that official conclusion save for an escaped pet wolf.

The wolf, however, could well return to Colorado on its own. Protected by the nation’s flurry of environmental laws passed during the Nixon administration, the wolf has wandered south to the outskirts of Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, muddling the politics of re-introduction of wolves into the Yellowstone ecosystem.

In a few years the wolf will likely wander down the Wind River Range and Wyoming Range, although from there they will face the barren wastes of Wyoming’s Red Desert, a biological big empty where there’s so little rainfall that the Continental Divide cannot be determined with any certainty. Still, within perhaps 30, maybe 40 or even 50 years, some brazen or perhaps foolhardy wolf is expected to leap that breach and return to Colorado.

Officially, the state wildlife commission also opposes re-introduction of the wolf, despite a more general policy favoring restoration and augmenting the state’s ecosystems.

Byrne is emphatic about the wolf and grizzly bears. “It’s not on our agenda,” he says. The state wildlife commission has never wavered from that position in the last 20 years.

Still, Coloradans appear inclined to embrace the wolf. A survey of state residents several years ago found 71% supporting wolf restoration, although more Front Range residents favored the idea than did people in small mountain communities.

Few doubt that wolves would find enough to eat. A thinly funded ($50,000) study conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1994 concluded that ungulates on Colorado’s Western Slope could support 1,128 wolves. The study found 63% of the mountain terrain (including adjacent areas in Wyoming and New Mexico) has good habitat for wolves.

“It dwarfs Yellowstone,” says Rob Edwards, program director for the Boulder-based wolf restoration group Sinapu. His group this year reached similar conclusions that Colorado could support 800 wolves.

Even within the livestock community there is tepid support for wolf restoration. Saguache-based Mel Coleman, progenitor of the line of organic beef bearing his name, has found large herds of elk competing with his cattle for grasses on the National Forest. Hunters have failed to check population growth of the elk. Maybe, he said, the San Juan Mountains and Cochetopa Hills could use a few wolves to keep the elk in check.

Coleman prefaced that comment, made at a forum where no reporters were readily identified, with an observation that it probably would go against the grain of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Indeed, it does, although beef not running with hormone-pushing chemicals also goes against the grain, as well as the marbling, of most cattle produced in Colorado.

Freeman Lester, the Del Norte-based president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, reports no discomfort with the lynx itself. “As for a cat killing a calf, that’s not going to happen,” says Lester. He also does not fear the wolverine, targeted for re-introduction to the San Juans next winter by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “He’s more of a scavenger. I don’t think he would be a problem whatsoever.”

What Freeman and other livestock grazers do fear is how their rights to graze on public lands will be curbed once the federal government begins taking seriously its responsibility to protect native species. Perhaps, including, the wolf.

“They will be re-introducing the wolverine, and after that we really don’t know what will happen,” says the 63-year-old Lester. “It seems like one species leads to another.”

Sheep grazer J. Paul Brown from Ignacio similarly worries about effects on his grazing of 1,550 sheep northeast of Durango on federal land used by his family since 1947. “We can live alongside the lynx or the wolverine,” he says, “but if they restrict us to the point where we will be kicked off the forest, that would be devastating to our business.”

More serious, all will admit, is the prospect of wolves. “The wolf re-introduction would probably put us out of the business,” says Angelo Theos, who runs 3,000 ewes on federal lands northeast of Meeker, on the fringes of the Flat Tops. “It takes them a while to get accustomed to killing livestock, but eventually they do. That’s just their nature.”

Wolves, adds Rifle-based John Jewel, who grazes sheep on public lands northwest of Dotsero, will follow deer and elk to winter grazing on lower, and often, private, lands.

Re-introduction of the lynx spurred a bill into the Legislature that would require the Legislature to approve re-introductions of any species. Eagle County’s representative in the Legislature, Jack Taylor, who voted for the bill, maintains the bill was coincidental with the lynx re-introduction. It was not directed at the wolf, he insists.

Within the Colorado Division of Wildlife, however, there’s a deep suspicion the wolf did spawn this bill.

But legislative review isn’t necessarily bad, says Bruce Gill, a wildlife researcher. There must be public forums where the biology of species restoration can be addressed, as well as the economic and the philosophic debates, he says. The danger Gill sees is legislators using the power to usurp public sentiment.

Gill has precedent. In the past most bills regarding wildlife have had to go through the agriculture committees in both the House and the Senate, he notes. Those ag committees are dominated by rural and agriculture representatives in a state that is more than 90 percent urban.

When those legislators have bucked the popular will, the public will has bit back in the form of ballot initiatives. Legislators refused to ban the spring bear hunt. Voters in 1992 did so in a landslide. Legislators didn’t want to ban the leg-hold trap. Voters, in 1996, overwhelmingly made it so.

Legislators bent on blocking all species re-introductions will result in even more ballot initiatives. Such initiatives, by their nature simply stated, says Gill, are a poor way to debate complex public policy issues.

COLORADO’S SHORT HISTORY has been one of species depletion and species augmentation. The rush to pry precious metals out of the ground began in 1858. Just 14 years later the miners and their attendants had bamboozled the Utes out of use of the mountains in a deal that would still make any vacuum cleaner salesman proud. By 1880 the Utes were gone entirely, banned to dusty, seemingly worthless reservations.

For 50 years, but particularly in the late 1880s, settlers plucked like ravenous scavengers at chunks of the state ecosystems.

Bison were among the first to go. To weaken the Indians, the U.S. Army wanted to get rid of their food supply. The buffalo, as they are commonly called, were shot for the fertilizer their bones would yield. One train from Colorado’s southeast corner hauled away the bones from 90,000 buffalo. By 1893, only five herds of the mountain species of bison remained in the United States, and four of them were in Colorado. Three years later, trophy hunters cornered the last four of them in Colorado, east of Fairplay.

Less well known was the slaughter of elk and other big-game species during the 1880s. Silver strikes drew 30,000 to Leadville by around 1880, while others soon thronged to Aspen, Telluride, and Ouray. Rails were spiked across the state’s mountains and canyons to retrieve the riches. All needed to eat. Market hunters fanned out to harvest deer, bighorn sheep, and elk. Elk commanded 9£ a pound for tender steaks at a time when a miner hoped for no more than $3 for an eight-hour day.

By 1893, market hunting for game was banned. It was nearly too late. A government agent in 1911 reported the once-common elk was “exterminated over much of its former range in Colorado,” with only 500 to 1,000 remaining.

Responding to that near void was the Elks Lodge at Aspen, which sponsored a three-year re-introduction of 72 elk from Wyoming. The elk herds grew slowly at first, but now exceed 200,000, the nation’s largest.

Other re-introductions and augmentations during the last 40 years have been similarly successful. By 1970 bighorn sheep had dwindled to 2,200. Now, there are 7,600, and in places they have become roadside attractions.

River otters disappeared in 1906, but releases begun in the 1980s now have reproducing populations in four major river drainages. The white pelican has become a success beyond any expectation. And once again the antelope roams.

The moose is like the lynx in that this is the southern end of its historical range. They are unlike lynx in that they pose a risk to hikers.

Still, moose were re-introduced without controversy in 1978 and 1979, and again in the early 1990s. Moose now number more than 1,000, common enough that 31 were killed illegally last fall by hunters.

THE DEMISE OF THE LYNX has been more complex, its return more problematic. Unlike elk, it provided no meat. Unlike buffalo it contained no fertilizer.

When Merritt Cary of the federal government’s Bureau of Biological Survey visited trappers, fur-traders, and taxidermists for his report of Colorado wildlife in 1911, he found “rapidly decreasing” numbers of the Canada lynx. Only a few remained in the San Juan and La Plata mountains of the state’s southwest region. To the north, in the areas flanking today’s Interstate 70, he found them “tolerably common.”

For example, according to Cary’s report, Alpert & Co. of Kremmling purchased several skins in the winter of 1904-05 taken in the Williams Fork Mountains, just north of today’s Silverthorne and the Eisenhower Tunnel.

Fred Selack also reported buying several lynx skins annually, taken from the Rabbit Ears Range and Grand Lake region. Frank Hayes, a taxidermist from Glenwood Springs, told Cary of purchasing lynx pelts taken from the region today marked by the Aspen, Crested Butte, and Beaver Creek ski areas. One year he got five taken from the area around Mount Jackson, just beyond Beaver Creek.

Lynx came mostly from above 9,000 feet elevation; the lowest at 6,500 feet.

Taxonomy was confusing. Settlers sometimes used “lynx cats” to refer to bobcats taken from higher elevations. That may have been the case when Teddy Roosevelt rode the rails to Glenwood Springs in 1905. According to one legend, his hunting that year prompted his niece to create the stuffed Teddy Bear. As for the five lynx he and companions reportedly killed, they undoubtedly were bobcats. Diaries of his guides said as much, although TR himself in letters to his children referred to “lynx cats.”

Fur buyers were unlikely to confuse the two. The dense and longer fur of lynx pelts commands a higher price. A lynx also has longer, lankier legs than a bobcat as well as more pronounced black tufts on its ears.

But paws most distinguish lynx and define their place in this world. Three to four inches wide, they’re as big as those found on mountain lions weighing six times as much. In the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where the lynx remains common, and even in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, the lynx can pad in the snow more readily in pursuit of its likewise-gifted prey, the snowshoe hare. In those northlands, the hare populations swing dramatically, and in coat-tail fashion, so do those of the lynx.

In Colorado, snowshoe hare populations never flourish, nor crash, as wildly. Studies in Alaska have shown that snowshoe hare, in the good times, provide up to 80% of a lynx’s diet. In Colorado, lynx may turn to squirrels, voles, and other, less heartening feasts. In fact, Cary’s survey found lynx descending from the higher mountains in February and March to follow grouse and ptarmigan.

That, ironically, is exactly the stated fear of some of the outfitters opposing the re-introduction. Starved lynx may eat all the ptarmigan, they say.

BIOLOGISTS CAN ONLY assume what lynx eat in Colorado. By the time the state took active interest in non-game species, lynx were gone, or virtually so. Trapping played a role in their decline, as did poison.

The Federal Government underwrote a predator control program aimed principally at the coyote. In 1923 the bureau proudly reported killing or trapping 2,812 coyotes in Colorado and 297 bobcats.

Next on the list was 97 lynx. That was just Colorado, just one year.

Government agents placed 31,255 poison stations during that year.

Strychnine was the poison of choice beginning in about 1885 and continuing until use of poisoned meat ended in 1936. It was, the government said, killing too many innocent birds and animals. As predators, lynx weren’t necessarily considered innocent, even if they weren’t killing livestock.

But even after use of strychnine ended in the 1930s, cyanide guns and the compound 1080 were used until banned by executive order of that environmentalist president, Richard Nixon.

Of lingering and perhaps greatest influence has been landscape changes.

Lower-elevation lodgepole pine forests burned in Colorado from the 1850s until foresters gained the upper hand in the 1920s. Fires have been few since then. That means most lodgepole pine forests today are mature or older, and biologically barren. Snowshoe hare, and hence lynx, do better in younger forests of 20 to 40 years of age.

Or so goes the theory. There are other theories as well, such as Wyoming’s arid Red Desert being a barrier to lynx coming from the Northern Rockies.

That 100-mile barrier was presumed to have been more lush at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. In fact, biologists wondered if the lynx in Colorado hadn’t become a distinct subspecies. However, after several months of testing, a scientist in Boulder concluded there is less than 1% difference in DNA makeup between Colorado’s last lynx and the lynx common in Alaska. Had he found a distinct genetic subspecies, the re-introduction plan might have been squashed.

Then there are theories about why the last four lynx confirmed beyond doubt (i.e., there were bodies, not just prints) were all taken within about a 40-mile radius of Tennessee Pass during the latter years of the Vietnam War.

Trappers got them all: one south of Leadville, a second south of Georgetown, a third in the upper Frying Pan River drainage, just across a big hill from the Homestake Valley.

The final lynx, the last one confirmed in Colorado, was killed after a trapper/skier saw prints while riding a ski lift at Vail. Although the lynx had just gone on the state’s endangered species list, the trapper returned in February 1973 to set a trap, and it yielded one. A second one scampered off, he admitted after being nabbed by state game wardens. The animal by then was on the state endangered list. The stuffed remains of that lynx can be seen today in the lobby of Avon’s Christie Lodge.

Evidence of lynx has turned up repeatedly since then, including “probable” paw prints discovered in 1989 in the Super Bowl component of Vail’s Category III. Prints were also found at a proposed ski area between Wolf Creek Pass and Pagosa Springs.

And just this winter photos were turned in of prints taken west of Tennessee Pass. The prints revealed by the photos look identical to those of prints known to have come from lynx in Wyoming.

But no bodies, no DNA-testable hairs, no irrefutable evidence that lynx remain in Colorado has emerged. If there are still lynx in Colorado, and people like Rick Thompson, who found the prints at Vail in ’89, believe there are, there may be too few to be self-sustaining. It’s a view shared by state wildlife officer Bill Andree. “They never left,” he said quietly as the first lynx “returned” to Colorado in February.

After a stint in Denver last year, Allen Best was re-introduced to Vail this winter, where he is a senior reporter for the local print-media monopoly. The second part of this article, scheduled for our May edition, will deal with the probable costs and results of the lynx re-introduction.

Second installment