Lynx To The Past

THE FIRST WILD LYNX TO roam Colorado's San Juan Mountains in 25 years initially wanted nothing to do with the place. Surrounded by a clutch of biologists from the Colorado Division of Wildlife last week, the young female from Canada remained obstinately curled inside her metal box. Finally one of the biologists, Gene Byrne, leaned down and looked in. ""Hey,'' he said, ""you're free!'' The lynx poked her pointy-eared head out of the box and blinked at the snow-reflected sunlight. The rest of her followed tentatively, revealing a beast about twice the size of a fat housecat with huge paws and hindquarters. She looked around and padded off across a ravine, toward the edge of the blue spruce and Douglas fir forest that would be her new home. Byrne smiled as the animal disappeared into the trees. ""The lynx,'' he said, ""are back in Colorado.''

But will they survive and thrive? Three more lynx followed that pioneer into the woods, 9,500 feet up in one of the wildest regions in the continental United States. Dozens more will follow this season, with 50 next year and 50 more the year after that. Lynx used to prowl the forests along the Continental Divide, all the way into Canada, until trapping and poisoning put them into retreat. By the late 1970s pelts were $500 each, and the fur industry, logging and development had combined to decimate the lynx in Colorado. Today, Colorado officials hope these animals, ""translocated'' from British Columbia, will be the start of a new population. Like many experiments in species reintroduction, this one comes with its share of controversy--a fire in Vail's prime ski turf last fall was apparently set by ecoterrorists bent on curtailing development in lynx habitat. Reintroductions inevitably have rewards and risks, and while the idea of righting past wrongs and restoring an ecosystem is appealing, there's no guarantee the lynx will last.

Reintroduction is always tricky. But ecosystems do better with all of their parts in place, and there have been some famous successes, like the gray wolf in Yellowstone and the elk in Colorado. But in the case of the black-footed ferret, one government program is spending millions to breed and reintroduce the ferret to the Great Plains while another program is working to eradicate the prairie dog, the ferret's favorite food. As for the lynx, ""they don't translocate as well as other species,'' says Stephen Torbit, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Foundation. A lynx reintroduction program in the Adirondacks a decade ago failed when many of the critters found themselves on the business end of automobile headlights. And the San Juan Mountains, worryingly close to the southernmost edge of historic lynx habitat, are higher, drier and less forested than Canada's.

Still, hopes are high. When Canadian snowshoe-hare populations hit a high recently, Colorado wildlife officials figured the lynx population would be spiking, too--so there'd be enough to mount a relocation effort. Partly to appease environmentalists, Vail ponied up $200,000 to fund the program, and over the last couple of months trappers in British Columbia have been capturing lynx for $500 a head. It's not as easy as it sounds. B.C. trapper Paul Blackwell told state officials that his strategy was to create a ""cubby,'' tree limbs and brush that concealed a dead snowshoe hare and a padded leg trap. His trick: an extra scent lure. ""Usually they can't resist Chanel No. 5,'' Blackwell says.

The biologists in charge are taking every precaution. They surveyed the Colorado snowshoe-hare population to see if it could support the lynx. Ranchers worried that lynx would come after their livestock. Not likely--they're too small to go after big animals. Adults weigh about 20 pounds, and their main prey is the snowshoe hare--so close is the relationship that their populations boom and crash in sync, and both share similar adaptations for moving fast through snowy forest. Lynx paws, three to four inches wide, act like snowshoes, and the signature ear tufts amplify sound--like the scurrying of unlucky rabbits' feet over snow during a nocturnal hunt.

Mating patterns may help, too. Females got released first, to give them a chance to establish territories; predictably, lynx males pick their turf based on proximity to females. Mating season begins in late March, and ""if the males don't find females, they might just keep going,'' says Tom Beck, a biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. All the cats have radio collars, and biologists hope to track their movements from the ground and small airplanes.

Still, politics may yet doom the project. Colorado ranchers have argued that restrictions on land use, such as limiting grazing or recreation, might follow the reintroduction, though wildlife officials say they don't envision any changes. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designates the lynx an endangered species this summer, lynx management would get handed over to the Feds, which could mean reams of red tape. On the pro-lynx fringe, the shadowy Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for setting the fire in Vail that caused $12 million in damage last fall. They said they did it because planned expansion threatened the area where the lynx were to be released. Luckily for Vail, state wildlife officials decided that the wilder San Juan range to the south was better, lynx-wise.

Yet it was hard to be pessimistic as those first four lynx headed for tree cover last week. Reintroduction is about more than ecology. ""Our forefathers did a terrible job of stewardship of the animals in our state,'' says Byrne. We have an obligation to make it right.'' A forest full of lynx would certainly be a start.