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As Colorado prepares to reintroduce wolves, here's how another predator was brought back

Miles Blumhardt
Fort Collins Coloradoan

The last time Colorado reintroduced a predator, it might have included a few beers, a campfire and a rafting trip.

The state's first and to date only reintroduction of a predator dates to 1999, when the then-Colorado Division of Wildlife (now called Colorado Parks and Wildlife) returned lynx to the state.

Thursday, the state's Parks and Wildlife Commission will for the first time start planning to reintroduce wolves after voters in November narrowly approved bringing the polarizing predators back after they were killed off in the 1940s.

Proposition 114 passed by just less than 2%, making it the first time a state has passed legislation to reintroduce wildlife.

Earlier:Colorado wolf reintroduction stokes fears, passions of ranchers, ecologists, sportsmen

Fort Collins resident Rick Kahn remembers the day in 1997 when the idea to reintroduce lynx, which were largely lost from the Colorado landscape by the first half of the 1900s, was spawned.

Kahn, who supervised the Colorado Division of Wildlife's biologists and researchers, was rafting the Dolores River along with several state biologists and then-agency director John Mumma when the group decided to camp for the night in an alcove.

Over a few beers, the group argued over spending $30,000 on continued winter track surveys of lynx and wolverine, both of which had been largely long gone from the state. At the time, the last known wild lynx discovered was illegally trapped near Vail in 1974.

A trail camera picked up this image of a lynx in southwest Colorado in this undated photo. Lynx were reintroduced into the state between 1999 and 2006.

Some of the biologists complained about winter lynx tracking surveys turning up nothing when Kahn recalled one of the biologists told Mumma, "Just give me the money and get out of the way and I will put lynx on the ground."

"We just decided we can't continue looking for something that probably isn't there," said Kahn, who retired from the agency in 2011. "Even if there were several lynx running around the state, so what?"

Problem was, reintroducing lynx was only attempted once before by a state — and that attempt in New York failed around 1990.

And Kahn and others within the agency faced two other big issues — little political support and no funding.

Wolves:Colorado's first confirmed wolf pack in decades still hanging around one year later

Vail Resort boosts lynx efforts, controversy

Part of the funding problem was solved when Vail Resorts, which owns the Vail Ski Resort near where the last lynx was killed, donated around $350,000 for the project, Kahn said.

At the time, the resort was pushing to expand and some thought the money was a bribe to allow a proposed expansion that later became Blue Sky Basin in known lynx habitat.

The issue came to a head Oct. 19, 1998, when members of the Earth Liberation Front set fire to several Vail Ski Resort buildings and ski lifts in what then was one of the worst ecoterrorism attacks the country's history.

FILE - In this April 19, 2005 file photo, a Canada lynx heads into the Rio Grande National Forest after being released near Creede, Colo. Wildlife officials said Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, the Canada lynx no longer needs special protections in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin drafting a rule to revoke the animal's threatened species status, which has been in place since 2000. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Despite the hurdles, Kahn and supporters pressed on, convincing politicians that reintroducing lynx would allow the state to get out ahead of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's eventual listing of the animal under the Endangered Species Act. The federal agency listed the lynx as threatened in the Lower 48 states in 2000.

"We sold it internally and in the legislature by telling people if we learn how the lynx can make a living here instead of being forced to rely on data from Alaska and Canada that would not be applicable here that it would allow us to take a less restrictive tact when it was listed,'' Kahn said.

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Two years of political arm-twisting and planning resulted in the first release of 41 lynx trapped in Alaska and Canada and brought to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in January 1999.  

Kahn said the decision was to immediately release the lynx upon arrival so the solitary and secretive cats that thrive in high mountain wilderness weren't further stressed by humans. He said it was also a conscious decision to invite the media to cover the release (the Coloradoan sent me to near Creede for the release).

However, when it was reported that four of the first five lynx released died of starvation, Kahn and others felt the heat.

"There were a lot of concerns if the release would work,'' Kahn said. "We took a smart gamble (in inviting the media) and it blew up in the short term when the lynx died. The pressure ramped up after those first deaths and there was a fear that the project would die under the weight of its own ineptitude.''

Map of where some of Colorado's lynx traveled after being reintroduced and fitted with tracking devices.

Tweaked program leads to brighter future

The agency decided to change its release procedure. Instead of immediately releasing the lynx upon arrival in winter, they held the animals at a facility built near the release areas until releasing them in spring. This gave the lynx less harsh conditions to hunt for their primary prey, snowshoe hare. 

"There was no cookbook here,'' Kahn said. "Had that not worked, another round of more than 50% mortality would have killed the program.''

The agency reintroduced a total of 218 lynx to the state between 1999 and 2006, eventually establishing what it considers a self-sustaining population of around 200. In 2010, it declared the project met all benchmarks.

Listen: Lynx reintroduction podcast

Kahn said wolf reintroduction will in some ways be easier than lynx and in some ways prove much more difficult. However, the lynx reintroduction was thought to be helpful in planning other possible predator reintroductions.

"Wolves are much easier biologically to reintroduce because it's been done and you pretty much just let them out of the crates and they will do fine,'' said Kahn, who after retiring for the Division of Wildlife worked for the National Park Service, including on wolf management in Yellowstone National Park. "Lynx are persnickety, mainly only preying on snowshoe hare, but they are almost 100% benign when it comes to people interactions.

"Wolves are incredibly polarizing and I feel for CPW because the vote was the worst with half the people wanting wolves back now and the other half not at all.''

Gray wolf reintroduction: What to know

Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission's first meeting regarding wolf reintroduction since the November election when voters passed Proposition 114 takes place Jan. 14

Proposition 114 directs the commission to develop a plan to manage wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023.

That plan will include the commission holding statewide hearings about scientific, economic and social considerations and periodically obtaining public input to update the plan.

The plan must include state funds to assist livestock owners in preventing conflicts with wolves and pay fair compensation for livestock losses. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife published a ruling to delist gray wolves nationwide on Nov. 3, 2020, and management of gray wolves was turned over to the states and tribal wildlife agencies Jan. 4.

The commission acknowledges that previous federal rules delisting gray wolves have routinely been litigated once finalized. If that continues, federal listing status may be unclear in the immediate term. Regardless, gray wolves remain listed as endangered under state law in Colorado and taking of wolves remains prohibited.

Read more information on the plan here.

Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.