2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

The Missing Lynx

In Colorado, wilderness hut managers recruit hikers to track an elusive wildcat.

by: Kelly Bastone

(Photo by John Marriott)
(Photo by John Marriott)

A ring of 13,000-foot peaks dominates the skyline surrounding Margy's Hut, a backcountry refuge at the edge of Colorado's Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. The view is attention-grabbing, to say the least. But my attention is focused for the moment on one round, fist-size impression among a flurry of animal tracks in the snow. Like a lottery ticket, the hole fills me with a sense of hopeful excitement: Maybe it's tangible evidence of a rare animal I've seen only in field guides. Pulling a laminated card from my pack, I squat beside the hole in the snow and try to determine whether or not it's a paw print left by a lynx.

Like most winter visitors to Colorado's Tenth Mountain Division huts, I've come to the wilderness in search of high-alpine solitude and sweet backcountry skiing. But while I'll score plenty of both during my stay at 11,300 feet, I'll also track lynx, joining an initiative to turn hut visitors into citizen biologists. The goal: collect evidence of the endangered predators to help scientists gauge their prospects for survival in Colorado.

Lynx had completely disappeared from the state by 1973; increasing development shrunk their habitat, and trappers killed the cats for their pelts. Then, in 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife launched a reintroduction program that eventually released a total of 218 lynx into the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Each animal was fitted with a radio tracking collar–but over the years, many transmitters got lost or ran out of juice, and of course kittens weren't born wearing collars. Without that electronic data, researchers have trouble judging the status of these elusive cats, making on-the-ground tracking critical to the ongoing reintroduction effort.

Winter is the best time to monitor movement, as the snow captures tracks. And from December through April, nearly 40,000 snowshoers and skiers visit the Tenth Mountain Division huts, which are scattered throughout the Rockies above 9,000 feet–prime lynx habitat. Recognizing this potential army of volunteers, the DOW partnered with the hut association in 2007 to educate visitors about lynx behavior and ask them to report tracks and sightings. Each hut now has a binder with laminated tracking tutorials and forms for recording the location of any signs.

Early returns have DOW officials feeling optimistic about the lynx's return. Lead scientist Tanya Shenk says she received about 20 reports from hut visitors last winter (about 15 percent of all volunteer tracking reports), plus news of a rare sighting near Francie's Cabin, a backcountry shelter outside of Breckenridge. These signs supplement the DOW's radio collar data, suggesting that 150 to 200 cats now live in Colorado's mountains.

But Shenk cautions that the detective work is not done. "We need to see at least five more years of data indicating that reproduction and survival is exceeding mortality before we can confirm their long-term viability," she says. Indeed, after five years of consistent reproduction, the reintroduced lynx stopped producing kittens in 2007. That might indicate a struggling population, says Shenk, or might correspond with a recent decline in their preferred prey, the snowshoe hare.

Unfortunately, my visit doesn't turn up any clues. Lynx tracks are hard to identify, as the cat's thick fur blurs its prints into undefined holes in the snow. And though the holes I've found are surrounded by snowshoe hare tracks and a spruce-fir forest–two indicators of possible lynx presence–they lack the cat's stride pattern. Yet the search is hardly fruitless. Everywhere I look, foxes, hares, and pine martens have stitched their prints into the snow, revealing wildlife dramas where I previously had seen nothing. I might not glimpse a lynx, but I'll never look at its high-mountain habitat the same way again.

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -


Lou Ann
Mar 12, 2009

Last fall while in Michigan's upper pennisula, I had a chance to observe one of these cats for about 10 minutes. He did not appear to be frightened by me.

Feb 20, 2009

My wife and I saw what appeared to be a long taild lnyx in Pennsylvania near the Delaware Water Gap. A park ranger also saw it and pulled over to check. A rare siting no matter where.

Feb 03, 2009

that was sad

Feb 03, 2009

thats is cool


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Trailhead Register
Your favorite backpacking photo
Posted On: Aug 22, 2014
Submitted By: Echo
Trailhead Register
Stick is fine
Posted On: Aug 22, 2014
Submitted By: JasonG75

View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions