Saturday, April 8, 2017

Missing Lynx Return to New England

lynxIn the northern forest, a big gray cat crouches silently in a dense thicket of fir along a snowshoe hare run. Its pointed ears, topped with long tufts of black hair, twitch as it listens intently. The cat’s face is framed by a fur ruff and its yellow-green eyes are alert for movement. Suddenly, the lynx pounces, killing its prey with one quick bite to the neck. As it pads away with the hare, the lynx’s broad furry paws act like snowshoes, supporting it in the deep snow. Its short tail is tipped with black.

The Canada lynx, once eliminated from most of New England by forest clearing and unsustainable hunting and trapping, is making a comeback. Though still listed as a federally threatened species, there is an expanding breeding population in northern and western Maine, smaller numbers of lynx in northern New Hampshire, and intermittently, cats have been found in Vermont.

The lynx is a creature of the boreal forest, that broad swath of conifers stretching the width of Canada. Northern New England is at the southern edge of its range. This snow cat specializes in hunting snowshoe hares, which make up over 75% of its winter diet. A lynx will consume one to two hares per day. Lynx are so closely tied to their favorite prey that their populations fluctuate with the peaks and lows in snowshoe hare populations. Lynx also eat squirrels, grouse, and other prey, as well as carrion, and their diet tends to vary more in summer, when eggs and fish may be part of the menu.

Lynx entered New England from Quebec beginning in the 1990s, and especially in the early 2000s, when lynx populations in the Gaspé Region were high. These dispersing lynx crossed the border into Maine, where they boosted a small remaining population and benefitted from extensive areas of regenerating spruce-fir forest, following the spruce budworm outbreak in the 1970s. This young forest supports high densities of snowshoe hares.

By 2006, state biologists estimated there were 750 to 1000 adult lynx in Maine. As this population grew, some lynx ventured southwest. By 2011, lynx sign was common in Pittsburg, New Hampshire and tracks have been found occasionally in the White Mountains. Jillian Kilborn, a wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game, said the tracks in the mountains are probably from lynx wandering far afield during breeding season, but the White Mountain National Forest was once a stronghold for lynx. The state is working with the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study whether its high-elevation spruce-fir forests have enough snowshoe hares to support lynx.

Vermont had its first record of lynx in 2003 and there have been 14 confirmed citizen sightings of the cats or their tracks since then. A lynx was photographed twice in southern Vermont last summer. Chris Bernier, wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, explained this was likely a yearling male searching for new territory; dispersing lynx have been known to travel up to 500 miles. He doesn’t believe the Green Mountains have enough snowshoe hares to support a breeding population, but the state and federal partners have recently installed remote cameras throughout the Greens, and in prime habitat in the Northeast Kingdom to monitor for lynx. Kilborn believes there is a small breeding population in the northern tip of New Hampshire. Bernier said there was evidence of reproduction for a few years, but except for the lynx sightings in southern Vermont last year, lynx have not been detected in the state since 2014.

Whether lynx survive in New England will depend on the continued existence of large blocks of forests connecting our states to lynx populations in Quebec and New Brunswick, explained Bernier. “Climate change and the changes in our winters we’ve been seeing recently are not a good thing for lynx,” warned Kilborn. Lynx are designed for deep, fluffy snow. Crusty snow resulting from thawing and refreezing puts them at a disadvantage when competing with coyotes, fishers, and bobcats for habitat and prey. Fishers are also predators of lynx, said Kilborn.

Do you think you’ve seen a lynx? Photos of the cats or their tracks in New Hampshire (which ideally should include several tracks and a ruler for scale) may be reported to http://nhwildlifesightings.unh.edu/. In Vermont, use https://anrweb.vt.gov/FWD/FW/FurbearerReportingForm.aspx to report lynx sightings.

Be careful not to confuse a lynx with its more common cousin, the bobcat. Although individuals vary, this species has a spotted coat, shorter ear tufts, and a tail with black on top and white on the bottom. Lynx tracks are larger than those of a bobcat, and the toe pads appear smaller, as they are obscured by fur.

Susan Shea is a naturalist, writer and conservation consultant who lives in Brookfield, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.


Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.


Tags: , ,


24 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    Great news! And let’s never put them at a disadvantage by revealing locations.

  2. Jay P says:

    20 some odd years ago, the NYSDEC and SU school of ESF tried to re-introduce Lynx into the ADKs…. wasn’t successful due to snowshoe hares being down and too much traffic (roadkills). Every now and then, one filters down, passing through.

    • AG says:

      It almost always works better when we facilitate it to happen naturally. That said – they have learned a lot about making re-introductions more successful.

  3. Boreas says:

    I would also think the recent proliferation of coy/wolf in our area would be a significant threat to lynx recovery at lower elevations. Lynx could become prey themselves and certainly hare would be on the menu for the canids.

    Probably the reason lynx were able to survive here in the past was the ability to migrate up/down slope to follow prey populations. With significant competition at lower elevations re-population is going to be problematic. But I would love to have lynx back in NYS.

    • AG says:

      actually – bobcats are more of a threat to lynx than coyotes… think leopard and cheetah… bobcats muscle the taller lynx out in the same way leopards muscle the taller cheetah out.

      • Boreas says:

        I agree. Basically lynx are habitat/prey specialists. They have minimized their competition by targeting prey species that have adapted to very deep snow. Without deep snow, both coyotes and bobcat can move in on them. I am afraid less snow cover here in the future will send them back to Canada.

        • Paul says:

          But it sounds like the are moving back into areas there is also – “less snow cover”. New England has been dealing with the same up and down weather as the Adirondacks. Same goes for parts of Canada. Maybe they just like New England? Didn’t they find one of the Lynx they released here over in NH?

          • Boreas says:

            Paul,

            They may just have a super-abundance of prey there and/or a deficit where they normally range. I would assume low snow levels are going to send them all over the place until they either evolve to hunt different prey or wait until the next ice age.

    • Paul says:

      Bobcats appear to be doing quite well in NYS despite all the coyotes.

      • Boreas says:

        Paul,

        Yes. Both are generalists. Lynx are specialists backed into an ecological niche that is currently dwindling with climate change. They may be able to adapt, but specialists usually don’t do well with change.

      • AG says:

        Yes – wolves will prey on bobcats – but coyotes don’t.

  4. Paul says:

    On the fly it has to be difficult to distinguish a lynx from a bobcat. Generically speaking they are both Lynx. They are both in the Lynx genus. Bobcats can have those ear tufts. Seems like the only thing is different sized feet?

    • Boreas says:

      And color. Lynx are basically grey and bobcat are tawny. But it may be difficult to tell colors apart in bad light.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks, but I think anyone would find color a tough way to distinguish the two. Been lucky enough to see a few bobcats. The older (larger) ones I saw were pretty grey looking. The younger ones were much tanner (saw them up close in a tree). If you google images of bobcats and lynx you will see both grey and “tawny” examples of both animals. They say “confirmed” sightings so they must have a way? Saw a 30 pound (pretty tan) bobcat that someone had trapped

        We also have a pretty healthy fisher population in the Adirondacks now. Almost can’t go out in some areas in the winter without finding fisher tracks. Probably have to bring back some fisher trappers to help any lynx. I wonder if fisher got any of the ones they released here in the high peaks? You just don’t see many rabbit (hare) tracks up there. I think that maybe that habitat is much different now than it was when there were lynx. Maybe the logging that was going on in the early years was improving rabbit populations. Maybe the rabbits are gone with the denser mature forests that are in the higher elevations. Do we no for sure that lynx were in the Adirondacks prior to people?

        • Boreas says:

          You might mistake a bobcat for a lynx, but I don’t think you would mistake a lynx for a bobcat – especially in winter fur. Lynx are longer and lankier, have huge feet, a very stubby black tail. But of course, there are regional variations as well.

          This seemed like a good comparison:
          https://www.travel4wildlife.com/tell-difference-between-canadian-lynx-bobcat/

          • Paul says:

            Interesting. Thanks. I don’t know – that graphic where they have the two side-by-side seems to reinforce my impression that they are very hard to tell apart. They both basically have the same physical features with some differences in size of the features. And the article is really based on the fact that it is difficult to tell the two apart.

            Here recently there was a story about a supposed mountain lion on a game camera video. It looked just like one – turned out it was the size of a house cat. Having to decipher the difference based on shorter or longer ear tufts, tails and hair color or spot size feet seems iffy. Maybe I am just not very good at telling things apart.

            Interestingly in this story they also say that Lynx are maybe not so much a “specialist” either – preying on more than hare. If house cats can kill more than a billion birds per year (in the US alone) maybe a Lynx in the Adirondacks might have a shot!

            • Paul says:

              Of course the guy that wrote that is a wildlife photographer and not a wildlife biologist so maybe we should fact check his information on lynx diet!

            • Boreas says:

              Paul,

              I am a birder, so looking at field marks and general impressions (gizz) are second nature to me, but not without mistakes. Birds don’t give you a lot of time to study them either. There are also different populations of cats in different areas that have subtle regional differences.

              The further south they run, lynx have adapted a less specialized diet out of necessity, and birds are certainly on their list. I believe they also enjoy fish when they can get them.

        • AG says:

          why would we need to trap fishers to help lynx??? nature works those things out just fine. it’s been going on for thousands of years. when we muddle with the populations there are unintended consequences. when lynx prospered before in NYS – do you think there were no fishers? they found their equilibrium.

          • Boreas says:

            Agreed. If fishers were non-native species I would agree with intervening. But at this point, fisher and bobcat have just adapted to an ecological void left by the loss of lynx and wolves. If lynx are to re-populate this far south, they are going to need to adapt to the environment that exists. This includes disrupted habitat, human intrusion, roads, changes of prey, lack of snow, ‘mistaken’ trapping & shooting, etc., etc.. The list goes on.

            • Paul says:

              Boreas and AG, That was a joke. Lighten up. Not everyone is an expert on these cats like you two are.

            • AG says:

              Yes – and don’t forget there were cougars here too up until 120 years ago… They all co-existed..But there were also more moose… And bison and elk going back further…

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *