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Cat maps

In search of the missing lynx

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Several years ago, a Canadian lynx from the Seeley Lake area roamed into the outskirts of Missoula. The male “disperser”—a wanderer that may contribute to genetic diversity—skirted the southern flank of Mount Jumbo, strolled through the upper Rattlesnake, and dropped down into the Grant Creek drainage before booking it northwest to Evaro Hill. Biologists with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula tracked the lynx’s brush with civilization via GPS collar.

Clearly, says Forest Service research biologist John Squires, the cats have little trouble navigating Montana’s existing landscape.

Yet little is known about the landscape in which they live. They’re “very narrow habitat specialists,” Squires says. High-elevation bands of subalpine fir are optimal. Stable populations of snowshoe hare—about 98 percent of the lynx’s winter diet—are essential. As for the ideal mix of vegetation, the physical cover required for hunting, and the impacts of fire and beetle-kill management on the cats, biologists still have a lengthy list of questions.

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  • Lynx were historically present in 16 contiguous states in the lower 48. Today, they exist only in small populations in a handful of those states, including Montana.

“When the species was listed [as threatened] in 2000, the [habitat] map was crude,” Squires says. “We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of research.”

Squires is trying to learn more. Starting this winter, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, in partnership with Montana State University’s Spacial Sciences Center, will launch a comprehensive forest-mapping project using data from a newly launched Landsat satellite and old-school radar. The goal? To visualize lynx habitat in the Seeley-Swan region in three dimensions, answer lingering questions about the species’ home turf, and inform management decisions.

“It allows us to better conserve the species where it really is,” Squires says, “and it allows us to pursue other resource objectives in places where they’re not.”

In other words, improved data on the physical structure of lynx habitat will complement existing two-dimensional satellite images and drive Forest Service decisions regarding forest thinning and controlled burning on the landscape.

Squires expects mapping of the Seeley-Swan Valley to be completed within the project’s first year. Once it’s done, he and other biologists will combine the new map with aerial imagery collected over the past 10 years identifying lynx denning locations and movement patterns, as well as additional information to be gathered from lynx collared in the coming years. The project should result in a more complete picture of the local ecosystem, which will benefit more than lynx research. Squires says that with a changing climate and other factors at work on the landscape, monitoring lynx habitat more closely will ultimately benefit the forest itself.

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