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CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
Colorados lynx reintroduction underscores political,
Somewhere below the high peaks of the San Juan Range, the lynx is returning to Colorado. Wildlife biologists say these mountains are ideal habitat for reintroduction because they come complete with snowy north slopes, dark timber and snowshoe hares?the lynxs main prey.
But even a mild winter could not prevent the lynx from dying. Already four of the first 12 released in February have starved to death including a young male, about 11 months of age and a mature female. Both had been trapped in British Columbia, transported to Colorado, and acclimated in holding pens before being turned loose. Biologists used radio collars to monitor their progress, track their movements, and?eventually?to locate their bodies.
Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) biologists predict 50 percent of the 100 lynx that will be transplanted could die before the program is completed. And that has many of the states animal-rights activists up in arms?and on the same side of the issue as ranchers. "Starvation is a horribly slow, agonizing death," says Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado, who would like to see the program ended.
Local ranchers, who feared the reintroduction program would result in increased regulation and land-use restrictions, tried to block the effort last fall. When a judge threw out their proposed injunction last December, the road was cleared for the lynxs return.
Now, even the director of the reintroduction program admits the DOW rushed the lynx into the wilderness before new lawsuits to halt the effort could be initiated. This angered activists even more because they see DOW putting its interests above the interests of the lynx.
"Local and federal governments are looking for every excuse they can find to limit grazing," says Miles Davies, a past president of the Colorado Cattlemens Association who ranches near Deer Trail. "Sometimes you wonder if the government is trying to put all of agriculture out of business by implementing all these programs, and with all of these rules and regulations."
DOW believes the lynx program will do the opposite, by helping the state to preempt?not encourage?federal regulation. Already, there is litigation afoot that could result in the lynx being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states. Because of that, "Its in the best interests of the state to take the lead on these wildlife issues," says DOWs Todd Malmsbury. "This program could allow us not to list the lynx in Colorado, because weve already recovered it. If were not successful in our recovery efforts, we could request that this habitat is no longer suitable for lynx for a potential listing."
The reintroduction area encompasses a chunk of the Colorado high country anchored in the south by Red Mountain Pass, and extending along both sides of the Continental Divide as far as Silverton. It encompasses both private and public lands, including the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests. Most of the lands used for reintroduction are above 9,000 feet, and are north-facing slopes with spruce, fir, snow and snowshoe hares. Unlike the bobcat (which is about the same size?25 pounds at maturity), the lynx prefers the higher range and is adapted for snow, complete with giant feet and a heavy coat to keep it warm in winter.
DOW hopes to transplant 50 lynx this year and 50 in 2000. Most of the cats will come from Yukon Territory or Alaska.
The programs cost will run between $250,000 and $350,000 per year over the next three to four years, says Malmsbury. Thats about $10,000 per animal. DOW is a non-tax supported agency, he adds, with most of the lynx funding coming from the Colorado lottery. Vail Ski Resort, under scrutiny from environmental groups for allegedly diminishing potential lynx habitat by expansion into wilderness, has provided financial backing for the program, too. Last fall a radical environmental group caused several million dollars worth of damage to the new construction on top of Vail Mountain. The last sightings of the lynx took place near Vail in the late 1970s.
While the cost of species recovery may sound high, the loss of a few animals?which in all likelihood might have died anyway had they been left in their native habitat?is a small price to pay for bringing back keynote species like the wolf, wolverine or the lynx. "When we reintroduced river otters in the mid-1980s," Malmsbury says, "30 to 40 percent of the 50 transplanted were lost ."
But statements like that do little to stem the tide of criticism in Colorados urban areas. After reports of the lynxs deaths appeared in Denvers newspapers, a group of animal-rights activists held a candlelight vigil in downtown Boulder and a second rally a couple of weeks later. The group claimed the lynx were being harmed by trappers in Canada and Alaska?long before they were starving in Colorado?and that DOW had not done adequate research to determine the feasibility of reintroduction.
"My question to the DOW is what about the individual animal?" Bettina Rosmarino, who appeared at the rallies, wrote to the Boulder Daily Camera. "Why did they allow a juvenile lynx to be released into the wild when they knew that the animal would not make it? When is the DOW going to be held accountable to all the people of this state and not just to the special-interest groups with lots of money and political power?"
The ecologist Bekoff, who helped organize the rallies and continues to campaign against further reintroduction, points to the research of a number of biologists who believe reintroduction of animals?particularly predators?simply brings about undesirable results, and actually can do more harm to the animals in the long run.
"Given that even experts are extremely skeptical of attaining the goals of the reintroduction efforts, its important to reassess what we are doing and why," Bekoff says. "Just because we can do something doesnt mean we ought to do something."
In the meantime, Colorado will continue to transplant lynx. And its likely that programs like this will underscore political, social and economic differences like few government programs can. Survey data show the lynx reintroduction program is exactly what 60 percent of the states residents want. Adds Malmsbury, "That sampling included people who live in rural areas in western and eastern Colorado."
Rancher Davies, who believes the program shouldnt have ever been launched in the first place, sums it up this way: "Well, if the DOWs luck continues, and their lynx keep dying, we may not have to worry about this at all. But its also a sad situation. When you live with nature like ranchers do, you realize that nature is not always nurturing; it can be cruel, unforgiving and punishing."
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Eric Grant can be reached at <EPOldwest@aol.com> or c/o RANGE.