By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Posted: 02/16/2010 01:00:00 AM MST
Updated: 02/17/2010 12:21:05 PM MST
Snowmobilers and skiers are asked to carry Global Positioning System transmitters while moving around the 55,000-acre Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area in White River National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service project's purpose is to reveal how lynx respond to human intrusions — requiring simultaneous data on lynx activity.
But so far, the effort has been thwarted by an inability to find any lynx in the area humans frequent.
For weeks, biologists have been setting out traps to catch lynx and fit them with similar GPS transmitters. They've placed morsels of elk and deer meat inside the box traps and tried to lure lynx with a scent made from beaver castor. None of the lynx thought to reside in the snowpacked high country has taken the bait.
"We're still working on that," said Elizabeth Roberts, a Forest Service biologist helping run what is seen as a groundbreaking study.
By comparing plotted movements of both lynx and recreationists, biologists say, they'll build an understanding needed for an upcoming environmental assessment of possible adverse effects on lynx — which under the Endangered Species Act must be protected.
"We need to make sure we're in alignment with lynx conservation," Roberts said.
"We need the science to be better managers."
Thick-furred wildcats with tufted ears and big feet, lynx in Colorado were practically extinct a decade ago. Colorado Division of Wildlife officials then imported 218 from Canada and Alaska and released them between 1999 and 2005. Since the animals were reintroduced in Colorado, 118 have died. State data show vehicles, poachers and gunshots have killed about 35.
Now radio collars on the released lynx have mostly gone dead, complicating tracking. But lynx kittens have been spotted in recent years, said Joe Lewandowski, a state wildlife spokesman. "It appears they are finding stuff to eat — squirrels and hares," Lewandowski said. "People have reported seeing lynx on ski runs."
Lynx "are curious and vulnerable to being shot," said John Squires, a federal biologist at the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Montana, the lead investigator for the lynx project.
Forest Service data show the number of people entering the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area is mushrooming — reaching 29,000 last year, up from 20,800 in 2003 and a few thousand in the 1990s. About 60 percent rode snowmobiles.
Forest Service technicians hand out lynx brochures to recreationists who agree to be tracked. They also direct participants to a website where, after their wilderness romps, they can download maps showing where they went and how fast.
On a recent weekday, some were suspicious about carrying transmitters.
"Does this have anything to do with trying to shut this area down?" said snowmobiler Luke Magistrelli, 34, who nevertheless helped out. "I'm OK with it, as long as they're not trying to shut us down."
Others were glad to have a watchful eye on them.
"We're from Oklahoma, never really been in these mountains. If we can be tracked, that makes me feel a little better," Scott Blatchford, 24, said after agreeing to carry a transmitter. He, his bride and two friends fired up rented green Arctic Cat snowmobiles and roared toward the top of Shrine Pass (elevation 11,178 feet).
State wildlife stewards "are concerned about the lynx population, and (federal foresters) are concerned about the population as well," Forest Service spokesman Pat Thrasher said.
"We want to do what's right. We also want to be able to preserve recreation options — in the right balance."
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Here, kitty kitty
Thick-furred wildcats with big feet, lynx were practically extinct in Colorado a decade ago. Since 218 lynx were released in the state between 1999 and 2005, biologists have been trying to study how the cats interact with humans, but so far, no lynx have been spotted near humans.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org