Thirty-three Canada lynx were let loose in the southwestern Colorado high country, the first this year under a program to bring the long-absent cat back to the state for good.
A total of 50 lynx are to be released this year under the program. No more will be brought in after this year, but officials will keep a close watch on the cats in the hope that they mate and establish a permanent population.
The pointy-eared cats released Sunday, imported from the Yukon and British Columbia, were being set free on both sides of the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains about 300 miles southwest of Denver.
The Division of Wildlife had planned to release 30 lynx Sunday, 17 females and 13 males, but spokesman Todd Malmsbury said biologists looked at the lynx in holding pens and decided three more were ready to go.
He did not know the sex of the additional three.
The remote release points, covered by snow after a stormy March, are in the same general area where 41 lynx were set free last year when the program got under way.
"When you increase density, you increase the likelihood that the population will reproduce and, in the long term, thrive," said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Officials hope some of the new males will mate with females that have staked out territory since their arrival last year. Breeding season is beginning, and the cats normally give birth in June, Malmsbury said.
Of the 41 lynx trapped in Canada and Alaska and released in Colorado last year, 17 have died, including six of starvation.
Assailed by ranchers and outfitters, the reintroduction program drew criticism from some environmentalists after the deaths. But Malmsbury said officials had warned that as many as half the animals would die.
One reason for the deaths, he said, was that the animals were released within a day or two of their arrival in Colorado, leaving them little time to adjust to their new surroundings.
Canada lynx used to roam Colorado, but before last year the last confirmed sighting was in 1973, near Vail. The state lists the animal as endangered, and federal officials last month listed it as threatened.