The missing lynx

Two lynx lay in the snow in a forest
Although they avoid people, lynx cannot escape our impact. In Washington state, they are beset by wildfire and snow melt, hemmed in by a boundary line with human predators on one side and shrinking habitat on the other.

Canada lynx aren’t known for dumpster diving in the suburbs or poaching cattle off the range. They have yet to be filmed chasing a biker down a trail. Instead, lynx tend to give wide berth to humans, preferring isolated forested areas filled with snow and their favorite prey, snowshoe hare.

Although they avoid people, lynx cannot escape our impact. In Washington state, they are beset by wildfire and snow melt, hemmed in by a boundary line with human predators on one side and shrinking habitat on the other. Canada lynx could be a poster child for human and climate change impacts⁠—if it would only pose for the picture.

Since lynx won’t come to us, a research team led by Washington State University wildlife biologist Dan Thornton has been bringing cameras to them. Last year, the researchers published results of a massive project to place camera traps across more than 4,300 square miles of northeastern Washington. They found lynx present on only about 20 percent of their potential habitat.

Their disappearance is indicative of impacts to Washington’s wilderness, and the researchers are working on a long-term monitoring project to track Canada lynx to aid conservation efforts.

“Because lynx are so endangered in the state, they are impacted by changes that are happening every year,” Thornton said. “If we have a monitoring program in place, we can look at the effects of any management practices we might implement. This is really important for a species that’s on the edge. It’s such a dynamic landscape with both fire and changes to snowpack. We want this type of continuous data, so we can examine those changes.”

In addition to their namesake country, Canada lynx are found in Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington. The 2020 study provided much needed data on the lynx range in Washington⁠—and raised concerns about the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s push to delist lynx as a threatened species, showing they were losing ground in at least one state.

The population in Washington is one of the most threatened, Thornton says, which is why WSU and its partners are setting up the long-term monitoring project.

One of WSU’s collaborators on the project is raising a stink: Seattle-based Woodland Park Zoo helps track lynx with a novel scent-dispensing device it codeveloped with Microsoft Research and an Idaho Fish and Game biologist to monitor wolverines.

While scent lures are not new, the zoo’s slow drip dispenser has greater staying power. With a pungent mix of smells including skunk and anise, the devices have been drawing everything from cougars to deer and even squirrels. The scent, however, when paired with a remote camera, is intended to help survey carnivores like wolverines, which are rare and travel long distances.

“Carnivores are at the top of the food chain,” said Robert Long, one of the zoo’s senior conservation scientists. “They require large, healthy landscapes that are fairly well intact and protected from a lot of human disturbance, so by monitoring carnivores, we can get a good sense of whether our ecosystems are intact. Also, if you lose carnivores, there will often be cascading effects down the food chain.”

Doctoral student Travis King (’15 Zool., ’19 MS Nat. Res. Sci.), first author on the 2020 lynx study, saw a lot of those ecosystems firsthand, placing about half of the study’s 650 cameras. Camera traps are less invasive than physically trapping and radio-collaring animals. Some cameras can be placed on accessible roads or trails, but others require overnight hikes deep into the wilderness.

“This project gave me a huge appreciation of the beauty of Washington,” King said. “When you live and travel to these really remote corners, you begin to see the huge diversity in wildlife, like black bears or moose that would stare me down, the howling of wolves at night, and seeing cougar tracks and your tracks together.”

King also saw the aftermath of wildfires, which is one of the main pressures on Canada lynx. After a devastating fire, it can take decades for the landscape to recover to the point the animals can return.

“We’ve been having so many catastrophic, large-scale wildfires that we’ve probably lost about half of the best lynx habitat in the state,” said Scott Fisher, a Washington Department of Natural Resources biologist. “Habitat is key, so if half the habitat is gone about half the lynx are gone. We’re probably down to a very small population left here in Washington.”

The lynx also need snow to thrive, and Fisher helped place many camera traps in the snowy extremes. Big-pawed lynx have a predatory advantage in deep snow. Cougar and bobcats simply sink in it.

Yet that snowpack is shrinking because of warming temperatures from climate change. While lynx can follow the snow to the north, they risk being caught in fur traps in Canada, where they can be legally hunted.

Even for a predatory cat that does its best to avoid humans, the future of the Canada lynx⁠—and the landscapes it relies on⁠—depend on what humans decide to do.

“Under the worse models, if we don’t do anything, they are pretty well extirpated from the state,” said King. “But if we do take some level of climate action, we can at least reduce that chance.”

(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Washington State Magazine.)

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