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Canada lynx may need a climate refuge to survive

Canada lynx are famous for their long, black ear tufts and their amazing ability to hunt almost ghost-like across deep snow. While in the past this predator’s habitat extended from Alaska and Canada south into most of the Northern United States, currently the Canada lynx can only be found in several disjunct populations in Maine, Montana, Minnesota, Idaho, Colorado, and Washington. 

However, according to a Washington State University (WSU)-led recent survey of Canada Lynx occupancy and density in the Glacier National Park in Montana, this region is home to over 50 specimens, residing across most of Glacier’s 1,600 square-mile area, although at lower densities than in the core of their range further north.

“The population in the park is still substantial and exceeded our expectations,” said study senior author Dan Thornton, a wildlife ecologist at WSU. “Our results suggest the park could provide a much-needed climate refuge for the cats in the future.” 

Surveying lynx populations usually happens in the winter, when researchers can use bait to lure the animals to live traps. However, since Glacier is a highly difficult region to access in the wintertime, the scientists set up an array of 300 motion-sensitive cameras about a kilometer apart on hiking trails across much of the natural reserve, including some of its most remote areas. The recordings revealed that lynx are currently distributed not only across most of the park, but also at lower elevations. Thus, Glacier could turn out to be extremely important from a conservation point of view, possibly providing this endangered species a haven as climate continues to warm.

“The main question regarding the lynx’s survival is climate change. They are a cold-adapted species that needs deep snow. In Glacier at least, they have a lot of room to move up in elevation as the climate warms,” Thornton explained.

An important methodological innovation of the study was the use of cameras on both sides of trails in order to identify specific individuals based on their distinctive coat markings. “Lynx have pretty subtle markings compared to other cats and only on the inside of their front legs,” said lead author Alissa Anderson, a recent WSU master’s graduate. “So, we set up cameras on either side of the trail to attempt to get pictures of these markings that we could then use to identify individual cats in an area.” 

Despite difficulties such as poor lighting, vegetation, or image blur, this method allowed the researchers to link approximately 75 percent of the photographed lynx to specific individuals. Then, by combining the results of the park-wide occupancy survey with density analysis, they estimated an overall population of about 1.28 lynx per 100 square kilometers of terrain. In future studies, the scientists aim to apply similar techniques to survey populations of Canada lynx in other regions, such as the entire Washington state.

“The methodological contribution of this study is really important in the sense that it gives us a better way to get at the number of individual lynx, which is really important for understanding recovery and how a population is doing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to develop a recovery plan for the cats so the more information you have on the status of the population the better,” Thornton concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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