Animal Activists, Wildlife Officials Debate Lynx Reintroduction


After an hour of skimming the 14,000-foot snowy peaks of the San Juans in a small plane, pilot Whitey Wannemacher wondered aloud: “Where is everybody today?”

It was 70 minutes before the first beep was picked up from a radio collar on one of the 37 lynx that biologists have transplanted from Canada and Alaska in a state program to reintroduce the elusive cats to the high mountain wilderness. In more than six hours of flying, only four animals were tracked.

That doesn’t mean the controversial program is near collapse. If anything, it could mean the animals are dispersing and adapting to their new homes.

Four of the first five cats starved to death, but no dead animals have been found since early April.

“If they were dead, we’d find them in a heartbeat,” said Wannemacher, who flies for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He noted the collars emit a faster beep if an animal dies. Ground trackers then are sent to recover the body.


Flying a couple of days later, Wannemacher picked up beeps from 15 cats, whose distinctive black-tufted ears, short head and large paws distinguish them from the bobcat, a relative.

Since the program began, the trackers have spotted the lynx as far as 70 miles away from release sites in southwestern Colorado. The animals, which weigh up to 44 pounds, are adept swimmers and tree climbers.

The wildlife division launched the program in January, and officials hope to release an additional 50 lynx next year.

Animal rights activists asked state officials to suspend the reintroduction after the early deaths. Wildlife officials say they will consider it if the mortality rate among the lynx reaches 50%.

Marc Bekoff, a University of Colorado biologist and animal rights activist, claims there has never been a successful reintroduction of a carnivore.

Activists have held vigils and accused the state’s biologists of condemning the transplanted lynx to death to justify decisions to approve the expansion of the Vail ski resort into potential lynx habitat.

State officials “have admitted their haste in releasing lynx was driven, at least in part, by the desire to prevent federal protection for the cats in Colorado and take some heat off of Vail Resorts,” said Laurence McCain of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense.

An eco-terrorist group claimed it set a fire last year that caused $12 million in damage at Vail to protest the expansion. No arrests have been made in the case.

Mike Smith, wildlife chairman for the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter, defends the state biologists. “I think the division deserves a lot more credit and a lot less hammering,” he said.

Smith said it is too early to tell whether the program will succeed, but believes it is worth the risk, even if some lynx die.

“If I only see lynx tracks in the snow from time to time, it’s very important to me to know they are in Colorado. Wildlife is a part of our quality of life in Colorado.”

State biologists knew from the start there would be losses.

“We said the mortality could be 50%,” said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the wildlife division. He noted that some winters 50% of the lynx populations starve to death.

The lynx, which thrives in Canada and Alaska, was last spotted in Colorado at Vail in 1973. Trapping, poisoning and the development of ski areas in Colorado led to its downfall, though some activists claim state biologists are ignoring signs the lynx still exists here because it could stop Vail’s expansion.

Trapping and poisoning of the animal are now outlawed. The question of whether the cat can coexist with the growth of resorts and the proliferation of second homes in the high country remains to be resolved.

The lynx joins a number of other species that have been reintroduced to the wild throughout the West, including condors, grizzly bears and wolves.

Ranchers, farmers and others have opposed reintroductions because they fear they could bring more federal restrictions on their land. A group of ranchers failed in court to halt the Colorado lynx reintroduction.

Reintroduction opponents have found common cause with animal rights groups, which contend that the lynx program was hastily planned and that the deaths were unnecessary.

“Some people who really are upset cannot accept the loss of an individual animal,” said Diane Gansauer, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

“The Bambi situation is very powerful in our culture. We have a generation raised to believe all is sweetness and light in the bush. Nature’s way is also very tough.”