December 31, 2004

Group Finds 6 Lynx Kittens Born in Colorado

DENVER (AP) -- The year ended happily for state biologists with news that six more lynx kittens have been born to transplanted lynx in Colorado, bringing the total of newborns to 36 this year and 52 since a reintroduction program began in 1999.

The discoveries, confirmed this month, signal a positive trend for a program that got off to a rocky start. Four of the first five transplanted Canada lynx starved to death and opponents sued to stop release of the cats.

At least 85 of 166 long-haired, tuft-eared cats released in southwest Colorado since 1999 are known to be alive. The whereabouts of about 20 more aren't known because their radio collars have worn out.

State biologists want to release up to 50 more in April. Already, 16 lynx captured in Quebec, Canada, are in a holding pen in the southern part of the state.

"We were able to get 36 lynx from Canada last year and that's what we had in production this year. That's actually phenomenal," said Scott Wait, a Division of Wildlife biologist.

About two years ago, state wildlife officials waited anxiously for signs the cats were reproducing - the first major milestone in building a self-sustaining population. The Colorado Wildlife Commission approved releasing 50 lynx a year over three years, and possibly a few more after that, to boost chances the cats - loners except during mating season - would reproduce.

Teams tracking the lynx from air and on foot noted at least 16 kittens were found last year, followed by 13 litters this year. Further stoking the enthusiasm was confirmation that female lynx released in April 2003 gave birth this year; several that had kittens last year produced more this year.

"Putting a litter out every year shows they're in good habitat," said Tanya Shenk, the program's lead researcher.

The next major goal is reproduction by Colorado-born lynx. Teams supervised by Shenk want to trap and collar adult lynx whose collars have worn out, and their offspring as well to determine if they reproduce.

The lynx, a federally listed threatened species, disappeared from Colorado by the 1970s due to trapping, poisoning and development. Because Colorado was at the southernmost tip of the cat's historic range, critics questioned the wisdom of trying to restore lynx to the state.

The criticism grew louder when four of the first five lynx released starved to death, prompting immediate changes in the procedures. Instead of releasing the lynx immediately, biologists kept them caged for about three weeks to fatten them up, and freed them later in the winter when prey is more available.

In 2000, just one of 55 lynx died of starvation. That strengthened biologists' belief that the rugged San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado are a good habitat for the animals.

Trackers say the lynx are eating mice, voles and cottontail rabbits besides their favorite meal: snowshoe hares. A few have wandered to other states, including Wyoming and Utah.

Shenk said 56 lynx deaths have been recorded. Some were hit by cars, one was shot and others were killed by other predators.


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