Skiers weren't the last ones to get fresh tracks on Independence Pass before it closed for the winter. Still making tracks between Colorado's two tallest mountains are resident lynx who now roam the steep, rugged pass year-round. Through the snowy months ahead, the endangered cats' pawprints will blaze across avalanche chutes that no extreme skier would attempt.
Canada lynx, first reintroduced to southwest Colorado in 1999, are making use of a great expanse of the state's high Alpine habitat. The cats are venturing out of their core reintroduction area in the San Juan mountains to travel north to Wyoming and south to New Mexico.
That includes turf in Routt County. One lynx spent a summer hanging around the Routt Divide Blowdown, said Bob Dickman, lynx tracker for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. And Dickman also has followed the trails of lynx near Rabbit Ears Pass, Gore Pass, Lynx Pass and lurking near the town of Yampa.
Not only are adult lynx expanding their territory, but last spring, six reintroduced cats had a total of 16 kittens. This heartened officials who keep a cautious watch over each new development. Now, lynx trackers who spend winters roaming snowbound reaches of the Continental Divide studying the elusive cats are eagerly watching for the smaller tracks of kittens.
"We are by no means close to success, but we keep meeting these interim goals," said DOW Wildlife Management Supervisor Rick Kahn. Kahn said he hopes the lynx will approach recovery in the next five to 10 years.
Fifty more lynx are scheduled for reintroduction this winter, and another 50 in 2005.
"Instead of just eeking by for years and years and years, maybe we can make this viable," said Tanya Shenk, the DOW's head lynx researcher.
Since February 1999, 129 lynx have been released. The program is managed by the DOW and largely funded by Great Outdoors Colorado.
In addition to a"state endangered species" listing, lynx were federally listed as "threatened" in 2000 under the Endangered Species Act. Today, there are 14 surviving kittens and 57 traceable adult cats. The DOW estimates there could be an additional 21 untraceable live lynx.
The program has faced opposition from ranchers and the logging industry, which worry about potential restrictions on using forest lands identified as lynx habitat. Animal rights activists protested against what they said was a hasty, ill-planned reintroduction. It took only about a year between the program's initial conceptualization and the first lynx release.
But now the program is winning converts. Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, at first characterized the DOW's reintroduction tactics as "dump and pray."
Bekoff argued the program initially "ignored a lot of what was happening in order to get the animals out -- dumping them out in a marginal environment with too little food."
But Bekoff now says the DOW has improved the program.
Lisa Wolf, attending veterinarian for the DOW, said today's lynx spend at least a month in isolation pens at a ranch before being released, creating the kind of "soft release" Bekoff fought for at the program's inception. Bekoff said the holding period is critical to making sure lynx are habituated, acclimated and de-stressed.
The kittens, he acknowledges, are an encouraging sign for the reintroduction effort, but they aren't enough.
"It was really worth doing, and I'm glad they're doing it. They should be happy but not overly enthusiastic," Bekoff said.
Colorado's lynx have plenty of obstacles to overcome.
"The biggest problem is them being shot or hit by a car," Wolf said.
Since 1999, eight lynx have died after being hit by cars. Eleven have been shot, one "clearly poached," Shenk said.
Six other dead lynx tested positive for plague, an infectious bacterial disease, Wolf said.
Colorado's lynx come from Alaska and Canada, where trappers earn about four times the value of a pelt for catching a live lynx. Each animal gets a health screening and parasite treatment. Lynx get no immunizations before being released.
"We try not to treat them for or with anything that is unnecessary," Wolf said.
Out in the wild, trackers such as Dickman keep tabs on the lynx. Dickman monitors cats living in the Collegiate Peaks, including Independence Pass. Three or four lynx now travel north of Interstate 70.
As lynx zigzag across Colorado, trackers have learned a lot about how the cats move.
Dickman said lynx generally like easy traveling that comes with old U.S. Forest Service roads, but the snowshoe hare-eating cats will cross anything, including tundra, steep hillsides and rivers.
"They cross all kinds of things I'd hate to cross," Dickman said. Lynx even walk across avalanche chutes. "When they get in those chutes, you say heck with it."
Each lynx is released wearing a radio transmitter and a satellite transmitter attached to a leather collar. Satellite readings are especially important because lynx tend to roam for about a year before picking a home range, Shenk said.
Dickman tracks lynx on foot and by airplane. He gets "a good idea" where each lynx is by flying at about 15,000 feet and listening for the tell-tale beep of lynx radio collars on his Lotek receiver -- a black box about the size of a large dictionary that he can use on land or in the air to hear lynx signals. At first, static emanates from the receiver. Then there's a faint beep, a signal bounces, and finally distinctive, loud beeps as he zeroes in on an individual lynx.
While lynx roam far and wide, policy makers remain daunted by the task of charting their map to official recovery. An official recovery plan that would specify how many lynx constitute a viable population does not exist, DOW wildlife biologist Gary Skiba said.
Because lynx are federally listed as a threatened species, a Colorado recovery plan is irrelevant, and federal funds to develop a lynx recovery plan are lacking, Skiba said. It is, however, possible that Colorado would consider taking a lead to build a foundation for the federal lynx recovery plan, he said.
"Recovery planning is very much an art, not a science," Skiba said.
While navigating state and federal species reintroduction policies is daunting for humans, it may be nothing compared to the daring assaults lynx are making to cross another man-made barrier: I-70. Dickman said some lynx have been crossing the busy interstate near the Eisenhower Tunnel.
As Colorado's lynx demonstrate just how precarious and rewarding species reintroduction can be, biologists say only time can tell their fate. Judging by the abundance of snowshoe hare tracks Dickman saw during his first day snow tracking this year, he figures at least the Collegiate Peaks lynx should have a bountiful winter.
"Nobody knew how this was going to turn out" Shenk said. "We still don't."