Early on, Scott Wait remembers a time of “soul-searching.”
It was 1999. Colorado Parks and Wildlife had embarked on an ambitious quest that Wait would go on to lead: the reintroduction of lynx to the state.
It was a critical time for the cat, which would join the endangered species list at the turn of the century. Logging and expanding roads were shrinking habitats, this after trapping and mining took a toll.
Could the high, rugged San Juan Mountains be a new refuge? Conservationists everywhere turned their eyes to Colorado.
The results were grim.
“I know there were four starvations out of that first batch of about eight,” Wait says.
And those weren’t the last. The scrutiny was swift and intense.
“There were immediate calls to stop the whole program, and there were very serious discussions, very soul-searching discussions,” Wait says. “We weren’t in this business to put lynx out to die. That was as catastrophic to us as it was the public.”
The deaths, he says, “made us stop cold in our tracks.”
But wildlife managers felt they couldn’t delay long. The state had made deals with trappers in Canada and Alaska. A facility in Del Norte had been established — a brief stop for the felines that would be picked up at Denver International Airport. And more were on the way, the contracted trappers sending their otherwise bounties of fur.
What to do with them?
The “brief” idea at the facility was reconsidered. The initial thought was three days of rest and feeding — a strategy to ensure the lynx wouldn’t be habituated to people. The decision was to extend that to three weeks.
Almost immediately, Wait says, the team started seeing changes.
Now the trackable collars showed the big-footed animals moving. After the first 41 released in 1999, 55 more set out through 2000. Researchers discovered more and more dens through 2006, when the last of the program’s 218 lynx arrived.
“We followed those collars and then in 2010, we documented reproduction in the wild, generations of wild-born kittens,” says Eric Odell, one of CPW’s main investigators. “We concluded the population was doing well and self-sustaining.”
Another decade later, the declaration of victory continues to ring.
But perhaps it is a premature celebration, says Matthew Bishop, a Montana-based attorney with the Environmental Law Center. He’s been following lynx issues since the threatened designation in 2000.
“I think it’s great to celebrate how far they’ve come,” he says. “It’s a fantastic effort. But to suggest that 100-something lynx is now recovered and viable in the entire Southern Rockies, based on climate change projections? That’s ridiculous.”
CPW’s estimates are between 150 and 250. Those are imprecise and will likely continue to be with the agency’s limited resources and the lynx’s mysterious nature, Odell says.
“They’re low density, there’s not a lot of them on the landscape. They’re secretive, they’re individualistic, they don’t move around in groups. And they’re in difficult-to-access areas quite a bit.”
In the state’s southwest, they prowl above 8,000 feet, in remote and dense spruce-fir forests where their primary prey, the snowshoe hare, resides. After winter storms, researchers embark on skis or snowmobiles in search of long, peculiar tracks that they hope come with fur or scat samples to confirm.
In warm months, they journey out to plant cameras. Those capture the mountains’ vast animal kingdom, but rarely the lynx. The sight of one causes an excited jolt in the viewer.
Still, the data have been enough to satisfy CPW’s confidence.
Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, calls it “one of the most successful reintroductions of a threatened species.” In an email, she stressed the importance of continued monitoring, to “make sure lynx can persist in the face of climate change.”
Bishop fears too much confidence will spell a controversial decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They’re gonna use Colorado as a success story to justify delisting,” he says.
Fish and Wildlife last year announced lynx no longer required all protections under the Endangered Species Act. To conservationists, it marked another example of an administration seeking infrastructure and economic development at all costs.
It was “a vicious indifference toward this North America big cat’s continued existence in the Lower 48 states,” the WildEarth Guardians decried.
The group contrasted the move with a government assessment from December 2016, before the change in the oval office.
Citing bark beetle epidemics, global warming and other human-caused factors, a team of Fish and Wildlife scientists gave lynx a 70% chance to live through 2050 in their six strongholds: northern Maine, northeast Minnesota, northwest Montana/southeast Idaho, Washington, greater Yellowstone and western Colorado.
“However,” the team stated, “we believe it is very unlikely that resident lynx populations will persist through the end of this century.”
The tone changed in Fish and Wildlife’s new assessment: “We and the experts have low confidence in predicting the likely conditions of populations beyond 2050.”
The new team gave Colorado lynx a 50/50 chance to make it to 2100.
“I choose not to be a doomsdayer,” says Wait, now into his 33rd year with Parks and Wildlife. “But yeah, there are threats.”
Chief among them is indeed climate change in recent presentations by Jake Ivan, a leading lynx researcher in Colorado. Along with the beetles, he has cited longer, hotter fire seasons wreaking havoc on lynx’s food source.
And the spread of recreation and highway traffic also threatens the cats, Ivan says. Mueller gave the example of the Village at Wolf Creek — a proposed development beside the ski area that conservationists say would cut off a key lynx corridor.
Twenty years ago, the San Juans were seen as ideal for the struggling mammal — “a large area of low human impact,” Wait says. And yes, he says, that is changing.
Every now and then, he’ll get a report from someone driving or skiing. Mostly, they mistake the sighting for a bobcat.
But sometimes, they see what they thought they saw, what they hoped they saw: the elusive lynx in the wild.
“They’re thrilled to have the opportunity,” Wait says.