Ambassadors of the northern forest
Although lynx don’t recognize frontiers, we do. The cats are
managed completely differently in places as little as a mile apart.
In Canada, for example, limited trapping is allowed in most
provinces, though it’s tightly regulated and seasons are closed
to coincide with low points in the hare cycle. Hunting and
trapping lynx are not allowed in any of the lower 48 states of
the United States. Here, lynx were listed in 2000 as a threatened
species under the Endangered Species Act.
In January 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began
a formal five-year review of lynx and their threatened status.
The review could result in lynx retaining their threatened
classification, dropping down to “delisted,” or moving up to
endangered status, according to Jim Zelenak of the Fish and
Wildlife office in Helena, Montana, who is leading the review.
Among many questions is the extent of New Hampshire and
Vermont’s recently discovered lynx populations.
“For the past 30 years, lynx sightings and tracks have been
intermittently documented in New Hampshire, with little
consistency until 2010 and 2011, when tracks and sightings
became common in Pittsburg, near the Canadian border,” said
biologist Jillian Kilborn of the New Hampshire Fish and Game
Department. During the fall of 2011, a group of hunters spotted
lynx kittens on a Pittsburg logging road, Kilborn explained,
“prompting us to make a concerted effort to document the
distribution and abundance of lynx in the state.”
Lynx were regularly recorded during the first two years of the
survey (2011 and 2012) in the towns of Pittsburg, Cambridge,
and Success. Lynx were again seen in Pittsburg in the winter of
2013-14. In the winter of 2014-15, added Kilborn, “we detected
a further expansion of lynx range beyond Pittsburg.”
Next door in Vermont, the state has had at least 10 con-
firmed “citizen sightings” of lynx since 2010, the last of which
was in October 2013, according to biologist Chris Bernier of
the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “Five of these were
of tracks. One was of three lynx together – a presumed family
group – while another appeared to be two adults together. The
other sightings were all of single individuals.”
Although wildlife managers don’t know exactly how many
lynx Vermont has, a small number has likely become established
in the state’s Northeast Kingdom. In March 2010, a snowmobiler
snapped a photo of two adult lynx, likely a breeding pair, on a
trail in the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Almost
every winter since, lynx have been present. In 2013, for example,
scientists at the refuge obtained a trail camera photo of one
lynx and detected tracks of an adult female with four kittens. In
winter 2014, one lynx was photographed by a trail camera, but
no sign of lynx was visible this past winter, according to refuge
biologist Rachel Cliche.
New families of lynx may be taking up residence in Vermont.
Scientists have documented lynx reproduction in the Nulhegan
Basin, a section of the refuge, in 2012 and 2013. “Although that
doesn’t mean that reproduction was confined to this one spot,
if any additional reproduction did occur it was likely limited,”
said Bernier. “But we can confirm the birth of at least four lynx
kittens in Vermont.”
The future for lynx in the Northeast is as hazy as the past.
The next spruce budworm outbreak is underway in Canada. It’s
caused severe defoliation in some 10 million acres of spruce-
fir forest in Quebec and “is knocking on Maine’s door,” said
Stabins. And yet the forest is very different today than it was
in 1975 – for starters, there’s a lot less spruce and fir. Forest
practices have changed, too, and heavy cutting laws will limit
the scope of any salvage harvesting that takes place.
That could be good or bad for lynx, or good and bad. Less early
successional habitat will mean fewer hares. And yet a more selec-
tive harvest, which leaves more mature, cone-bearing softwoods,
could mean more red squirrels, which may serve as an important
secondary food source to lynx in years of low hare numbers.
Forest fragmentation will present a challenge to lynx. Higher
road densities, increased residential development, and wider use
of snowmobiles and other devices that compact snow could hurt
lynx by helping their rivals, bobcats and coyotes. Maintaining forest
connectivity between small populations of lynx in the United
States and larger populations in Canada, will also be crucial.
But at this moment in time, the return of the lynx in the
Northeast is a success story. Today, lynx are clearly present in
parts of the northwoods where they haven’t existed in decades.
Harry McCarthy of Woodland, Maine, can attest to all this.
In January 2013, McCarthy was host to a group of four lynx
parading up his driveway. He grabbed his camera and was able
to get a few good shots through his living room window before
the lynx disappeared into his woods. McCarthy posted the
photos on his Facebook page, and soon the pictures went viral.
Biologists believe the four lynx were likely an adult female and
her three eight- to nine-month-old kittens.
Across northernmost New England, more lynx may
be watching us from driveways and backyards, roads and
snowmobile trails, than we know. In Maine, New Hampshire,
Vermont, and beyond, are we watching out for them?
Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, covers
the natural world for National Geographic, Ocean Geographic, National Wildlife, Yankee,
and many other publications.
Lynx eating a snowshoe hare.