Recent lynx sighting brings back memories of another Rocky Mountain encounter

Seeing a lynx in the wild in Colorado, where as few as 50 of the animals reside, can be a rare treat. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

It couldn’t have been the same cat, could it?

About 10 years ago, on an off day from work in Durango, Colo., I headed just north to an area that includes a nice trout lake. But before checking out the rainbow bite, I hit a nearby backcountry trail for a quick hike.

I had the trails to myself that sunny summer day — not much even in the form of wildlife in an area usually steeped in it. Here, in the heart of the San Juan Range of the Rocky Mountains, you never knew what you might stumble upon: elk, deer, maybe even the rare mountain lion.

Or equally-as-rare lynx.

I’d never seen one before — haven’t seen one since — so had to look several times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. But sure enough, not more than 20 yards from where I stood in an opening in the forest was a lynx. (I’m most sure it was a lynx, not a bobcat, which also are found in Colorado). I fully expected it to bolt the moment it noticed that I had taken notice. But it didn’t. Instead, it nonchalantly continued on its way, slowly disappearing into the surrounding brush.

So, a recent sighting of a lynx just a few miles from that spot, also acting surprisingly nonchalant, got me wondering if it could possibly be the same animal. There have been reports of lynx living for upwards of 15 years in the wild. And while most of Colorado’s lynx reside there in southwestern Colorado, there are thought to be as few as 50 of them in the entire state. And lynx are normally elusive animals and sightings are uncommon.

Sadly, the lynx that was spotted strolling across a ski run at the Purgatory Resort a couple weeks ago — a moment that was captured on cellphone video and has since gone viral — several miles from where I hiked that day way back when was recently found dead nearby.

According to Joe Lewandowski, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman who has worked out of the Durango office for as long as I can remember, a necropsy — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — will be done to try to determine the cause of death.

According to Lewandowski, the lynx’s body was emaciated and the animal might have been ill, which could account for its odd behavior, lingering near people at the resort.

Or could it be old age?

“It was in bad body condition,” Lewandowski told the Associated Press, adding that wasn’t apparent from the videos, which showed the lynx strolling across a ski run on Dec. 28 and later. Lewandowski says biologists are convinced it was the same lynx that was found dead.

Lynx are protected under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous 48 states. They were native to Colorado but virtually disappeared from the state by the 1970s because of hunting, poisoning and development, according to the story by the Associated Press. The state brought them back starting in 1999, transplanting the animals from Canada and Alaska.

Officials at first weren’t surprised by the lynx’s appearance at Purgatory because the resort is in prime lynx habitat — so yes, maybe my sighting wasn’t overly rare after all.

“But after I saw three more videos of the same animal behaving the same way in the same area I figured that something was wrong with the cat,” Parks and Wildlife biologist Scott Wait said in that AP story.

Two weeks before the sighting at Purgatory, a driver spotted a pair of lynx walking along a mountain highway about 15 miles north of the resort — so about 20 miles north of where I hiked that day, well up in the mountains. But Wait said not all lynx that venture near people are necessarily ill.

I’m sure that the lynx I encountered was just fine.

Fine, indeed.

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