Another group of Alaska lynx headed to Colorado

Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- As soon as veterinarian Cort Zachel lifted the white curtain covering the front of one of four reinforced dog kennels sitting in the back of a Chevy Astro Van, a low, sincere growl rolled out of the back of the cage.

Two green eyes glistened in a sliver of sunlight that seeped into the cage and the snarl coming out was like an angry cat cornered by a dog.

But this was no ordinary cat. It was a full-grown, wild lynx, capable of killing a snowshoe hare with one swipe of its razor-sharp claws. Not exactly something you would put in a shoe box to take to the vet for its rabies shot, evidenced by the ''Do not put fingers in holes'' sign on the side of the kennel.

The 25-pound cat sat hunched in the back corner of the cage, still a little groggy from a tranquilizer it had been given three hours earlier, but alert enough to know the eyes staring back at it belonged to something from a world far from its own.

From the wilds of Alaska to a dog kennel in the back of a Chevy Astro Van to a jet airliner bound for Colorado.

''It's got to be a whole different world,'' said wildlife biologist Cathie Harms, looking inside the kennel at the growling cat.

The lynx was one of 10 that the state Department of Fish and Game is sending to the Colorado Division of Wildlife in an attempt to restore the cat to the state. Colorado was the southernmost part of the cat's historic range, but it is believed lynx disappeared from the state in the early 1970s.

The Alaska lynx were caught in the foothills of the Alaska Range near Gold King Creek, about 100 miles Southeast of Fairbanks, using padded leg-hold traps and snares.

The biggest of the 10 lynx shipped from Alaska weighed 25 pounds and the smallest weighed 17. Zachel examined each cat and gave them all clean bills of health. One prospective cat was released because it had an infected toe, he said.

In the last year, wildlife biologists in Colorado have released more than 70 lynx into the mountains of southwest Colorado. All were trapped in Alaska and Canada. Biologists released 41 lynx last spring and another 33 cats were let loose on April 2. Nineteen more lynx, including the 10 shipped from Alaska, will be released in coming weeks.

The restoration program was criticized after six of the transplanted lynx starved to death shortly after being released, prompting biologists to fatten up the lynx before letting them go.

''We weren't holding them long enough'' before releasing them, said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury. ''They weren't in good enough condition.''

So far, a total of 17 of the 41 transplanted cats released last year have died -- six starved, three were shot, two were hit by cars and one was killed by a bobcat. Another five died of unknown causes.

The 33 cats released earlier this month are alive and well. The state is tracking their progress through collars with radio transmitters and devices getting satellite feeds.

The animals released last year had collars with just radio transmitters, whose signals fade out at a certain distance.

Just recently, a lynx missing for several months after its release last year was found nearly starved near the New Mexico border. Biologists captured the cat late last month after two fishermen spotted it.

The cat was one of about 10 the Colorado Division of Wildlife had lost track of since releasing the 41 in the wild last winter. The animal apparently wandered into New Mexico and nearly starved when it couldn't find enough to eat.

The cat weighed 26 pounds when it was released in southwestern Colorado, but only 13 pounds when biologists caught up with it.

''It started eating immediately and is recovering,'' Malmsbury said Monday. ''It will be released again in good habitat.''

The lynx being shipped from Alaska to Colorado won't have an easy time of it, but the same is true if they stay here, Harms said.

Lynx populations fluctuate on a 10-year cycle along with that of snowshoe hares and the cycle is about at its peak, meaning lynx and hare populations will begin a five-year decline before beginning to rebound.

''The lynx that are here for the next five years will have a tough time, too,'' she said. ''Probably about as tough as the ones going to Colorado will have it.''

The main source of food for the elusive, tuft-eared cats is snowshoe hares. The lynx were released in southwestern Colorado in part because of a large number of the hares in the area.

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