A decade after dozens of lynx were captured in Canada and shipped to Colorado to launch the state’s bid to replace its vanished population of tuft-eared wildcats, U.S. conservation officials have declared the project an unprecedented success and touted it as a model for future reintroductions of extirpated species.
In fact, state biologists have already identified their next repopulation candidate — the wolverine, another creature that once lived in Colorado but is now largely restricted to Canadian habitats in North America.
The effort to bring the iconic lynx back to the forested mountains of southwest Colorado began in 1999 amid controversy over the program’s milliondollar price tag. The project later endured failures that left some of the transplanted cats — natives of British Columbia Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Yukon and Alaska — dead from starvation or wandering unwanted into New Mexico, where they could be shot on sight.
But wildlife officials persisted with the experiment, and were able to loudly proclaim success last week after another bumper crop of kittens pushed lynx numbers above and beyond the point where a “self-sustaining population” had clearly been reached.
****”Today is a proud day for the agency,” Colorado Division of Wildlife director Tom Remington announced Friday. “I applaud the wildlife professionals whose commitment and expertise have made the lynx project a success.”
Even the state’s top politician, Gov. Bill Ritter, issued a statement hailing the return of the lynx as a symbol of Colorado’s rebirth as a nature haven.
“It’s an example of what we can do when we have a vision and the will to see it through,” he said.
The celebratory statements followed the discovery this spring of 14 kittens in five separate dens in the state, including two litters located outside the principal reintroduction zone — a key sign of the growing strength of the population.
And since several breeding-age female lynx are not wearing satellite collars to allow scientists to track them, officials believe there are many other newborns this year that haven’t been documented.
“Analysis of observational data indicates that the cats’ reproductive rate has outpaced mortality in the 11 years since the reintroduction program was launched, which is the hallmark of a self-sustaining population,” said an overview of the achievement issued by the state’s wildlife division. “DOW biologists believe lessons learned from this program could be helpful in developing a plan to reintroduce wolverine to Colorado.”
Colorado’s lynx reintroduction is one of several high-profile, bi-national efforts to restore long-lost wildlife populations to parts of North America where they had thrived before urban development and other forces catastrophically depleted species’ critical habitat.
Officials managing reintroduction programs in the U.S. typically turn to Canada for supplies of animals to be transplanted. Controversial efforts to restore wolf populations in some parts of the U.S. have typically relied on imports of Canadian animals.
In another major bi-national effort to rescue an iconic endangered species, Canadian and American wildlife experts have been co-operating for decades to sustain the world’s last natural population of whooping cranes, which migrates annually between Wood Buffalo National Park along the Alberta-Northwest Territories border to summer feeding grounds in Texas.
As part of that effort, eggs from whooping crane nests in Canada have been collected and hatched in U.S. bird sanctuaries to foster captive breeding populations.
Earlier this year, the discovery in Alberta of a dead lynx wearing a Colorado satellite collar was hailed as a promising sign for North American nature since U.S. habitats had evidently supplied enough rabbits and other prey to sustain the predator through its record-setting, 2,000-kilometre journey back to Canada.