Some elusive and charming lynx have been parading past stunned Colorado residents and visitors this winter. The animals have excited social media. They have given biologists reason to smile.
One of the rare, fluffy-looking cats strolled casually across the Purgatory resort. The resort is located in southwestern Colorado. The animal threaded its way through a crowd of skiers and snowboarders. The people swerved around the animal. They stopped to take videos.
Two weeks earlier, a pair of lynx loped along a mountain highway a few feet from Dontje Hildebrand's car.
"My heart just about busted out of my chest when I realized what I was seeing," said Hildebrand. He was driving over Molas Pass. That is about 15 miles north of the Purgatory resort. There, he came upon a female lynx and her kitten.
Between 50 and 250 lynx live in the wild in Colorado. They are found mostly in the southwestern corner of the state, biologists say. That's down from previous estimates of 200 to 300. But officials cite better calculations, not a population decline.
They are protected under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous 48 states.
Lynx are native to Colorado. They had nearly disappeared from the state by the 1970s. That is because of hunting, poisoning and development. The state brought them back starting in 1999. Lynx were brought in from Canada and Alaska.
The medium-size cats have tufted ears, short tails and broad paws that work like snowshoes. Their paws let them walk across powdery snow. The lynx can grow to nearly 3 feet long and 30 pounds.
Wildlife officials don't know exactly how many live in Colorado because they are so hard to find, said Joe Lewandowski. He is a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
A few people report seeing them every year. Those sightings don't help with the science of lynx reintroduction because they are anecdotal, Lewandowski said.
"But it's encouraging," he said.
The state documents where the animals live with a survey using automated cameras. The cameras are mounted in remote lynx country.
The sightings show the cats are getting comfortable in the high-altitude forests of southwestern Colorado. It is prime lynx habitat.
The lynx appearance at Purgatory on Dec. 28 was unusual. That is because so many people saw it, Lewandowski said.
Lynx generally are not a threat to people, he said. They are docile. They eat mostly snowshoe hares. And they likely would not take on anything as large as a human. But they also are unpredictable. People should never approach them or feed them, he said.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the lynx seem relaxed?
Write your answers in the comments section below