John Squires has worked with lynx in western Montana for more than a decade. A biologist with the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, he's located lynx dens, studied the species' use of subalpine habitat and tracked scores of cats using GPS telemetry. Now, Squires is teaming up with the Spacial Sciences Center at Montana State University to add a new dimension. Through a mix of new land satellite technology and older radar, Squires intends to construct a three-dimensional map of lynx habitat that will answer two key questions in the agency's management of Montana forests: What exactly is lynx habitat, and how do you maintain it?
"Lynx are very narrow habitat specialists," Squires says. "They stay within high-elevation subalpine fir forests."
Squires has already gotten a feel for how lynx travel across Montana's landscape. They primarily congregate above the Seeley-Swan Valley. Squires tracked one disperser several years ago that traveled south to Mount Jumbo, skirted Missoula's northernmost neighborhoods and wandered north to Evaro Hill before returning to Seeley. So they know their way around, but how much cover must forests provide for a species that relies on snowshoe hare for 98 percent of its winter diet? What mix of vegetation is ideal? What effects could wildfire management and beetle-kill thinning have on the species?
In seeking answers to such questions, this latest project, overlaid with data from projects past, will most likely lessen management conflicts, Squires says. "It allows us to better conserve the species where it really is, and it allows us to pursue other resource objectives in places where they're not."
Ideally, Squires says, the Forest Service and MSU will have a solid habitat model within the next year. Incorporating that into existing data on lynx could take another two years. But the effects of Squires's latest research could be far-reaching. Better maps will ease the uncertainty in legal challenges involving lynx habitat. It will give biologists in other states a model to apply to other lynx populations. And it will supply the agency with the means to monitor ongoing changes in forest structure, a major factor in the conservation of more than just lynx.
"The forests themselves need to be monitored and mapped," Squires says. "There are a lot of other species that need those forests."