Crawling with wildcats: Maine lynx population booming

Posted Jan. 20, 2014, at 1:51 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 20, 2014, at 3:25 p.m.
BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Courtesy of Dorothy Fescke
Photo courtesy of Sarah Spencer
Courtesy of MDIF&W

The Canada lynx. Perhaps no creature is better suited for the harsh winters of northern Maine. The deep snow. The sub-zero temperatures. The dense evergreen forests. For the thick-furred lynx, these things spell home.

 

Yet in the 1960s, when these wildcats were hunted for a bounty of $15 for pelt, the lynx nearly disappeared from Maine’s forests altogether. People took notice, and in 1967, lynx were protected from harvest by state law.

 

And after years of protection from harvest, one things clear: lynx are making a comeback.

 

“It’s pretty neat to be here at this time, when they’re so abundant in Maine,” said state wildlife biologist Jennifer Vashon, in charge of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife lynx program since 2002.

 

In fact, state biologists believe the lynx population in Maine is at a historic high. And numerous sightings have placed these wildcats in forests of eastern and western Maine where they’ve never been seen before.

 

Today, more than 1,000 adult lynx are estimated to live in Maine, based on sightings and tracks recorded during the lynx study conducted by the DIF&W from 1999 to 2011.

 

Doesn’t sound like many? Well, compared to Maine’s many other fur-bearing creatures, it’s not. In fact, state biologists estimate that Maine is currently home to about 31,000 black bears, 70,000 moose and 203,000 white-tailed deer.

 

But the lynx can’t be compared to other Maine wildlife, Vashon said, because in Maine, this thick-furred wildcat is living at the edge of its range.

 

“There’s a reason this is the edge of their range; the habitat isn’t ideal,” she said. “That’s the hard part for wildlife managers — accepting when you’re on the edge of an animal’s range.”

 

The lynx-hare affair

 

The Canada lynx was federally listed as a threatened species in 2000. But in Maine, it doesn’t meet the “threatened” criteria, so it is simply a species of special concern — something to keep our eye on.

 

Primarily found in the northern part of the state, the lynx is a prime example of a selective predator. It preys almost exclusively on snowshoe hare. Therefore, their ideal habitat is simply the habitat that supports high populations of hare — young, dense spruce-fir forest.

 

For this reason, the fate of the lynx and hare are linked, so much so that natural fluctuations in the hare population is mirrored in the lynx population.

 

“They’re both well adapted to living in the winter,” said Vashon, pointing out their large feet, which essentially float on deep snow. “The lynx is probably one of the few animals in deep snow that can catch and capture snowshoe hare.”

 

In Maine, biologists assumed that coyotes might compete with lynx, but during the 12-year lynx study, they found no evidence of this. Based on tracks, lynx roam the deep snow without issue, while coyotes tend to stick to packed trails and road systems and are more likely to take down larger prey, such as deer.

 

During times of abundance, lynx actually cache hares, hiding them in piles of snow to be found and eaten later.

 

“We saw a lot of caching during the study,” Vashon said. “You’ll find this little mound — this pile of snow, and their footprints will be all over. It’s pretty neat when you get to see that.”

 

Searching for the elusive cat

 

Vashon remembers when the state lynx study began in 1999. She was sent into the wilderness to search for tracks. And though she had never identified a lynx track before, she recognized the large paw print as soon as she came across it in the snow.

 

“It almost looked like a bear track it was so big,” she said. “But you know that bears are in their dens … The cat is impressive, but the tracks themselves are impressive.”

 

Growing to an average of 19-26 pounds, the Canada lynx is similar in size to the bobcat, but it appears larger because of its long legs and large paws. To tell the two Maine wildcats apart, people look to the cats’ ears and tails. Lynx have longer black tufts of fur on their ears than bobcats; and lynx have black-tipped tails all the way around, whereas bobcats have white on the underside of their tails.

 

To learn more about lynx behavior, Maine biologists often backtrack (so not to disturb the wildcat) and watch stories unravel as they examine pawprints in the snow. From this fieldwork and aerial observations, they’ve learned that while lynx are solitary predators, they often meet up for a tumble in the snow or vocal exchange.

 

“Lynx are very social,” Vashon said. “You always think of predators as being especially territorial, but they’re actually more tolerant than we give them credit for. I think that’s one thing that allows the population to grow.”

 

To learn more about lynx productivity, Maine biologists attached radio collars to 88 female lynx during the study. Each spring, a team tracked the wildcats to their dens, where over the course of 12 years, they documented the birth of 111 kittens in 42 litters.

 

Locating the dens was tricky. They didn’t want to spook the mother, the carrier of the radio collar, because then they might never find the den. So each time they neared a site, the team would send just one person into the thick forest.

 

Wading through prickly evergreens, Vashon always felt a little nervous as she left the group behind to search for the lynx. Yet finding the dens was one of the most rewarding experiences of the study, she said.

 

“I was able to walk down a mossy log to a den in a blowdown,” Vashon said of one den trip. “I was able to creep down and get up close, and [the mother lynx] was nursing the whole time. I waited until she was done nursing before calling everyone in.”

 

Each lynx reacted a bit differently to the team’s presence, Vashon said. But typically, after a few warning growls, the mother would leave the den and linger nearby.

 

“She’d let you know that she didn’t like that you there,” Vashon said, remembering the growls that often emitted from the underbrush as she weighed and measured the kittens.

 

One particular mother lynx waited in plain sight, Vashon recalled. When the team was done collecting data from each kitten, they’d set the tiny lynx down; and in response, the mother would reach out her large paw and scoop the kitten to her chest, one by one.

 

Living on the edge

 

Following the 12-year lynx study, the DIF&W published the 2012 lynx species assessment, a 107-page document that sums up their research and will help guide conservation goals and management in the future.

 

State biologists continue to monitor the lynx population by documenting every time a lynx is spotted by a warden, inadvertently ensnared in a trapper or struck by a vehicle.

 

“Many [lynx] will amble across the road, sit and look back at you. It gives people time to take pictures — it’s interesting,” Vashon said. “And people often see them swimming in water, when canoeing or kayaking.”

 

“We’d like to start survey work up again and go out there,” she continued. “It all depends on funding and time.”

 

At this point, Vashon’s focus as a wildlife manager is to aid the lynx’s ability to persist in Maine rather than become more abundant.

 

The study revealed predation and starvation (perhaps due to lungworm) to be the leading cause of mortality for lynx. But when it comes right down to it, lynx go where the hares go.

 

The spruce budworm outbreak in the late 70s led to clear cutting that opened up space for young spruce-fir forest. And because of that, today, hare habitat is likely at a historic high in Maine, said Vashon.

 

As those forests mature, they will support fewer hares, and therefore, lynx. So forest management will likely be key to keeping lynx here in Maine. “Build it, and they will come.”

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Outdoors