Canadian lynxes are not known to dive dumpsters or poach cattle out of reach in the suburbs. They have yet to be filmed chasing a biker down a trail. Instead, lynxes tend to steer clear of humans and prefer isolated forest areas with snow and their favorite prey, the snowshoe hare.
Although they avoid humans, the lynx cannot escape our influence. In Washington state they are plagued by forest fires and thawing snow, cramped by a borderline with human predators on one side and shrinking habitat on the other. Canada lynx could be a figurehead for the impact of humans and climate change – if only he posed for the picture.
Since the lynx does not come to us, a research team led by Washington State University did Wildlife biologist Dan Thornton brought them cameras. Last year, the researchers released the results of a massive project to set camera traps on more than 4,300 square miles in northeast Washington. They found lynxes that were only present on about 20 percent of their potential habitat.
Their disappearance is an indication of an impact on Washington’s wilderness, and researchers are working on a long-term surveillance project to track the Canadian lynx to aid conservation efforts.
“Because lynxes are so endangered in the state, they are affected by changes that happen every year,” Thornton said. “When we have a monitoring program, we can examine the impact of any management practices we have implemented. This is really important for a species that is on the edge. It’s such a dynamic landscape with fire and changes in snow cover. We want this kind of continuous data so that we can examine these changes. “
In addition to their namesake country, Canada lynxes are found in Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington. The 2020 study provided much-needed data on Washington lynx populations – and raised concern over efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eradicate the lynx as an endangered species, showing it is on the ground in at least one state loses.
The population in Washington is one of the most threatened, says Thornton, which is why the WSU and its partners are launching the long-term monitoring project.
One of the WSU employees on the project is pissed off: based in Seattle Woodland Park Zoo helps track lynxes with a novel fragrance dispenser it developed with Microsoft Research and an Idaho fish and wildlife biologist to monitor wolverines.
Scented baits aren’t new, but the zoo’s slow drop dispenser has greater stamina. With a pungent mix of scents like skunk and anise, the devices have attracted everything from pumas to deer to squirrels. However, the scent, when combined with a remote camera, is said to help examine carnivores such as 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 conservationists. “You need large, healthy landscapes that are fairly 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. When you lose carnivores, there are often cascading effects along the food chain. “
Graduate student Travis King (’15 Zool., ’19 MS Nat. Res. Sci.), Lead author of the 2020 lynx study, saw many of these ecosystems firsthand and placed about half of the study’s 650 cameras. Camera traps are less invasive than physical animal dropping and radio collars. Some cameras can be placed on accessible roads or paths, but others require nighttime hikes deep into the wilderness.
“This project made me really appreciate the beauty of Washington,” said King. “When you live and travel in these really remote corners, you start to see the tremendous variety of wildlife, like black bears or moose, staring at me, howling wolves at night, and seeing puma tracks and your tracks together.”
King also saw the aftermath of forest fires, which are a major burden on the Canadian lynx. After a devastating fire, it can take decades for the landscape to recover enough for the animals to return.
“We’ve had so many catastrophic, large-scale forest fires that we’ve lost probably about half of the best lynx habitat in the state,” said Scott Fisher, a biologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “Habitat is key, so if half of the habitat is gone, roughly half of the lynx is gone. We probably only have a very small population here in Washington. “
The lynx also needs snow to thrive, and Fisher helped set plenty of camera traps in the snowy extremes. Big paw lynx have a predatory advantage in deep snow. Cougar and bobcat just sink into it.
But the snow cover is shrinking due to the warming of temperatures due to climate change. While lynxes can follow the snow north, they risk being caught in fur traps in Canada, where they can be legally hunted.
Even for a big cat doing its best to avoid people, the future of the Canada lynx – and the landscapes it relies on – depends on what people do.
“Among the inferior models, they’re pretty good exterminated from the state if we don’t do anything,” King said. “But if we take a certain amount of climate protection measures, we can at least reduce this chance.”
(This article originally appeared in Edition autumn 2021 of Washington State Magazine.)