The Troubling Reason Why These Rare, Beautiful Lynxes Are Dying Off

The big cats’ snowshoe hare prey is disappearing, but climate change poses the biggest threat to the endangered predator.
(Photo: Daniel J Cox/Getty Images)
Jan 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The elusive and rarely seen Canada lynx is in trouble.

No one knows exactly how many of the distinctive big cats remain in the United States, but all signs point to the fact that their population is shrinking while their habitats have become fragmented.

That has prompted efforts to secure greater protection for Canada lynx. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week kicked off a review of the species, the first since it was listed as threatened, one step below endangered, in the year 2000.

“By comparing historical and recent lynx records, we know that they’re now scarce in regions where they used to be more common,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who has spent the past several years working to preserve the species. “Now they’re holed up in a few major regions across the northern part of the country.” That includes populations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Minnesota, and a few New England states.

One area where lynx appear to be on the decline is Maine, which just five years ago was home to an estimated 750 to 1,000 of the cats. Today, that number is probably closer to 500, according to FWS. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife sticks to the higher estimate.

No matter which is correct, “they are expected to decline,” Paul noted, pointing out that the population expanded in the late 1990s after clear-cutting and fire-suppression techniques created more habitat for snowshoe hares, the lynx’s primary prey. Changes in forestry methods have allowed trees to grow there once again, removing the low-height underbrush the hares need to thrive.

“As the forests grow, that’s going lead to a decrease in both hares and lynx,” she said.

Climate change will also pose problems for both species across their range in the future, as both the hares and the lynx are highly adapted for snowy conditions.

“Lynx need snow,” Paul said. “They’re fully adapted to a winter lifestyle, with a weight ratio that allows them to move quickly across snow.”

FWS estimates that based on current climate change models, the amount of snowy habitat for lynx in Maine and New Hampshire will almost completely disappear by the end of the century. Climate change was not even recognized as a threat to Canada lynx when the species was first protected 15 years ago.

The long-standing tradition of trap hunting in Maine could also pose a risk to lynx. More of the cats were caught in traps last year than in any year since 1999. In response, FWS and IFW adopted strict trapping rules in November. But two lynx died in traps almost immediately after the rules went into effect, forcing IFW to put even stricter measures in place and ban almost all trapping in the state’s North Woods.

Sportsmen immediately objected to the rules, with one writer accusing FWS of having an “anti-trapping agenda.” The Maine Trappers Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Paul said she hopes the FWS review period will inspire people to think about Canada lynx.

“They’ve suffered from a lack of public awareness,” she said. “They lack some of the love that wolves and grizzlies and wolverines have been getting recently. If we can encourage people to take the lynx into their hearts and minds, then hopefully we can get them recovered over time.”