Researchers Christopher Hoving, William Krohn, and
Ronald Joseph used museum records, bibliographic records,
and interviews to reconstruct lynx history in the United States,
and concluded that before the 1900s, lynx were more widely
distributed in the Northeast than they are today, ranging from
Pennsylvania north to Quebec. But by 1913, lynx were mostly
relegated to the forests of western and northern Maine.
Unregulated hunting and trapping and conversion of forests
to agricultural land played a role in the lynx’s inability to maintain viable populations in the region, but another intriguing
theory holds that climate may have played a role, as well.
Between about 1300 and the mid-1800s, the northern hemisphere went through a period of cooling known as the Little Ice
Age. During that time, snow fell over a longer season than today
– sometimes from September through May. Then temperatures
gradually warmed through the rest of the 1800s, meaning there
was less snow and more competition from other carnivores.
When there’s deep snow, lynx have an advantage over other
predators. They’re lightweight and have large paws, which gives
them what scientists call low foot-loading, or weight per area
of paw. They also have long legs, the better to walk through
deep snow. “When comparing the foot-loading and leg length
of Canada lynx, bobcat, and several other forest carnivores,
Canada lynx were distinct from the other carnivores that were
adapted by either long legs (such as coyote) or low foot-loading (such as marten), but not both,” state the researchers in
But when there’s not snow, the more aggressive bobcat might
displace the lynx. The two species are close relatives and, when
living together, compete for food and space.
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lynx records
from the 1960s were mostly from above 3,280 feet in forests
dominated by balsam fir and black spruce – areas that would
have had substantially more snow than the valleys.
In the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, the distribution of lynx – a species that’s now extirpated from the state
– may have been similar. Rainer Brocke, wildlife biologist emeritus at the State University of New York at Syracuse, estimates that
lynx preferred Adirondack spruce-fir forests with deep snow at
elevations above 2,953 feet. Nonetheless, a lynx reintroduction
attempt in the late 1980s in the High Peaks region failed. Several
lynx were killed by cars and trucks along roads. Others dispersed
to points as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the south
and Quebec and Ontario to the north.
The planet is heating up. So why, considering the warmer
temperatures, are lynx returning now?
What likely lured many lynx to northern Maine, says Stabins,
traces back to a tiny native insect, the eastern spruce budworm.
Budworms go on spruce-killing sprees in the Northeast every 30
to 60 years. The last onslaught was in the late 1970s and 1980s,
when an estimated 25 million cords of spruce and fir were felled
in one 13-year span. With millions of dollars worth of timber
rotting on the stump, extensive salvage harvesting ensued. In
the early 1980s, between 80,000 and 100,000 acres of forest were
clearcut each year in Maine. By the mid-1990s, these clearcuts
had grown back into a patchwork of early successional habitat,
and snowshoe hare followed. Thirty years later, these clearcut
areas are maturing to the point where the hare population is
beginning to decline, which may be one reason why lynx are