The male lynx known to researchers as BC-03-M-02 was born in his mother’s den somewhere in British Columbia or western Alberta in the year 2001. It’s not known whether he had brothers or sisters, but litters can be anywhere from one to five kittens, says Gabriela Yates, a lynx researcher at the University of Alberta. BC-03-M-02 likely spent his early days romping with his siblings, climbing trees, and burying his scat to hide its scent from predatory pine martens and weasels (older lynx, who are less vulnerable, aren’t so considerate). While his father wasn’t around—typical for lynx—his mother taught him to hunt grouse, voles, squirrel, and especially the snowshoe hares that are their preferred prey, taking him on hunting trips with her.
Lynx are solitary animals, and fiercely territorial: each has its own home range. When BC-03-M-02 was about eight months old, it was time to find a new home. He might have left with his siblings, but eventually broke off alone, making his way to the outskirts of Kamloops, B.C., as his fur changed from a spotty kitten’s coat to the more subdued, mottled pattern of an adult.
In Canada, the lynx population isn’t endangered, Yates says, but in some U.S. states, including Colorado, they’ve all but disappeared (the last Colorado lynx were seen around 1973). About 10 years ago, the state introduced an ambitious species reintroduction program; by 2005, with Canadian co-operation, more than 200 lynx had been released into the wild. BC-03-M-02 was one of them. In 2003, at the age of two—an adolescent in lynx years—he was captured outside of Kamloops by a team from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and taken to the southwestern end of the state. “The habitat there is marginal compared to what we would see in Canada, in the sense that it’s not a dense boreal forest,” Yates says. With their big furry feet, lynx can run quickly over deep snow to catch snowshoe hares, but in Colorado, “the density of hares is lower,” she adds. As the southernmost edge of their range, Colorado is the farthest a lynx can go.
Still, the Canadian lynx “did very well in Colorado,” Yates says. Like others in the species reintroduction program, BC-03-M-02 started in an outdoor enclosure to get used to his new surroundings before being released into the wild, a radio collar around his neck. (The collar wasn’t GPS-equipped; it used radio telemetry to track his position through triangulation.) The lynx soon set up a new home range, and went on to sire two litters of kittens—two babies in 2005, and another four in 2006—both with the same female partner. Lynx aren’t monogamous, and he wouldn’t have had much of a relationship with the female or her kittens, Yates suspects, although their territories may have overlapped. “Males and females only spend time together during the mating season,” she notes.
On April 20, 2007, something very strange happened: wildlife officials were no longer able to pick up the lynx’s radio signal, indicating he’d left the study area. BC-03-M-02 disappeared—for 33 months. Although lynx tend to stick to their home range, they do occasionally make one-way migrations, and have been known to travel up to 1,000 km to find better habitat or more snowshoe hares, Yates says. BC-03-M-02 apparently began the longest known migration of any member of his species: a trek of nearly 2,000 km, back to Canada. “Maybe he was looking for land more similar to what he was born in,” Yates says, “and Colorado just wasn’t similar enough.” While the exact path he travelled isn’t known, it wasn’t an easy trip. Large patches of arid Colorado land, which Yates calls “almost desert,” and man-made obstacles like major roads and highways, stood between him and home. It took him almost three years to make his way up the Rocky Mountain chain, and whatever the route, “certainly he had to cross a lot of hardships,” Yates says. “He saw more of the Rocky Mountains than any human ever has on foot.”
Late on the evening of Jan. 28, Brian Anger, a fur trapper in Rocky Mountain House, Alta., set out to the trapline to check his snares. “It was about dark when we found it,” he says—the body of a lynx, dead in one of the traps, with a radio collar around its neck. Anger was aware of Yates’s work with the lynx population, and phoned her up. Because of the collar, she immediately knew it was one of the Colorado lynx. Remarkably, BC-03-M-02’s body was found just hours from the spot outside Kamloops where he was trapped seven years before. Despite his long journey home, and his advanced age—the animal was about eight years old, very close to the end of his natural life—he was in excellent health, Yates says. “Maybe he wanted to die close to home.”