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The Missing Lynx

Missoula scientists hot on the trail of the elusive lynx

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The listing in March of the Canadian lynx as threatened in the lower 48 states ended a long chapter in the politics surrounding species preservation in the U.S. The petitions, lawsuits, countersuits, negotiations and settlements spanned nearly a decade, with the now-familiar saga of various environmental groups suing various federal agencies several times over, in the slow evolution of the case.

Overshadowed by courtroom gymnastics, however, and buried under reams of legal documents lies a simple truth: The act of listing a species as threatened or endangered does nothing to help actual animals. Paperwork, or even the favorable decision of a federal judge, is merely the acknowledgement of legal and political will to protect the habitat of the species in question. This is where science plays a vital role: Key habitat characteristics must be identified, reproductive patterns must be studied, disturbances—both natural and man-made—within probable habitat areas must be accounted for, so that changes can be made for the benefit of a species and its range.

In the particular instance of the lynx, the history of scientific inquiry is brief and inadequate. Little is known about the requirements of the elusive feline. The reasons for this are many. The lynx prefers dense coniferous forests at middle to high elevations; deep snow and avalanche-prone slopes in winter prevent in-field investigation by humans. Lynx are also scarce, at least in the U.S. The Canadian lynx is decidedly Canadian when defined by numbers; the majority of them preferring the desolate taiga forests and colder mountain ranges of our northern neighbors, with populations scattered southward as far as Wyoming and possibly Colorado.

Western Montana, however, contains prime habitat for visiting and resident lynx, which may be why a team of scientists at Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Research Station is quietly establishing their reputation as the nation’s leader in lynx research. Amassing commercial trap records from centuries past, coordinating data from other states and Canada, pioneering new techniques for tracking individual lynx, and in October, publishing a collaborative 450-page book titled Lynx Ecology and Conservation in the U.S. have been among the major tasks of these local scientists.

But if you talk to Dr. Kevin McKelvey, a scientist at the research station’s forestry lab, the most probable response to any inquiries about lynx is still marred by uncertainty. Notes from an interview with McKelvey are characterized by complex explanations of habitat requirements, fluctuations in population, and migration corridors, punctuated by an invariably polite and patient qualifier, spoken with a slight smile. It’s either, “We don’t really understand this very well,” or “we don’t know.” Like all good scientists, however, McKelvey and his colleagues are interested in asking the right questions as much as finding solid answers. “The lynx is very hard to get an accurate picture of,” McKelvey notes. “In 1963, a lynx was shot in Shelby County in west-central Iowa; there was one found in Wisconsin in 1992. It’s really hard to say what’s viable lynx habitat from year to year and what’s not.”

McKelvey bravely attempts to explain in terms a mere journalist could understand the prevailing theory of North American lynx population viewed as a whole. “We know that the center of the lynx population is in Canada; that’s where the largest concentrations of lynx are found,” McKelvey says. “What we don’t know is what prompts, in some years, numbers of lynx to migrate. The original theory was that drops in snow-shoe hare—a staple of the lynx diet—population up north would coincide with years where there appears to be large numbers of lynx coming south. But now we’re realizing it’s much more complex than that.”

By comparing lynx statistics from the U.S. with those of Canadian provinces in the same years, McKelvey and his colleagues elucidated one of the current mysteries of biology, baffling scientists who have studied all manner of creatures, from voles to grizzly bears: What combination of factors precipitates the rise and fall, and ebb and flow, of animal populations on scales large and small? “The population seems to fluctuate in waves or pulses from its center in Canada,” McKelvey explains somewhat cautiously. “What causes the waves, or the pulses? We don’t understand this very well yet.”

Ironically, the latest innovation to aid in answering these questions calls for an inventory that at first looks like an eclectic shopping list from Costco. The supplies include pie tins, catnip, carpet samples, roofing nails, Ziploc bags, and scent bait of the variety used by hunters of elusive game. Together, somehow, these are used to collect hair samples of lynx in likely habitat zones. “You take these carpet squares with nails sticking out of them,” explains McKelvey, handing over a thick, syllabus-size, photocopied packet titled “National Lynx Detection Protocol.” “And then you basically construct a hair snare in a habitat area. It’s somewhat like a cat-scratching post, I suppose.”

The process is actually more complicated than that, but McKelvey is betting it will be worth the trouble. With the advent of DNA testing, the collection of hair samples will enable scientists to collect what has been virtually uncollectable information about lynx in a given area. A similar study of grizzlies in Glacier National Park is yielding data that allows biologists to identify and assign hairs by species, individual and gender.

“Hair samples were worthless until recently,” McKelvey says. “You couldn’t tell a housecat from a bobcat from a mountain lion. But now we’ll be able to use this technique to answer not just questions about the lynx, but hopefully a better picture of the different needs and characteristics of different habitats.” McKelvey elaborates by explaining that there are a variety of forest types that seem to support lynx on one level or other. “We know there are lynx in the Okanogan [in Northeastern Washington], but the Clearwater National Forest, for instance, there’s still question if there is a resident population there.”

Of course even field biologists are prone to a comedy of human errors. The lynx protocol document warns, “You need to know what a carpet fiber looks like so that you do not misidentify it as hair.”

What kind of lynx population might be in residence here in Northwestern Montana? John Squires, who along with McKelvey wrote or contributed data to several chapters in the recently published Ecology and Conservation of Lynx, led a radio-telemetry study of lynx in an area that included parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Seeley-Swan Valley in the Clearwater River drainage. Squires’ study trapped and fitted with transmitters 18 lynx from January 1998 to March 1999. The study allowed researchers to track individual lynx movements during winter and summer. One lynx, dubbed Male 20, was located one summer day in the Bob Marshall. A week later, this cat was found about 23 miles away at a site near Ovando. Squires writes in one of his chapters with a hint of awe, “This male had traveled a straight-line distance of nearly 39 km. ... He had to cross a two-lane highway and the Blackfoot River (about 30-40m wide) during the movement. Male 20 remained near Ovando for two days before it moved again and could no longer be located from an aircraft. … We relocated Male 20 47 km north of Ovando.” Squires, a research associate at the University of Montana, noted that these wanderings are mostly the habits of resident males, who, like many humans, have taken a liking to exploring new territory in summer when the travelling is easier.

With the promise of DNA testing in the near future, the history of local lynx populations might become clearer to Squires, McKelvey, and their colleagues. “The question of how and when migrating populations become resident to somewhere like the Bob Marshall could be at least partially answered,” McKelvey hopes. So long as the carpet fibers are culled from the cat hair.

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