In search of the elusive Canada lynx

Photo courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife Matt Vasquez, holding a sedated Canada Lynx ready to be collared with radio telemetry equipment.

Why are Canada lynx so elusive? Their range stretches across 25 states including Colorado, yet, this intriguing medium-sized wild cat with large, furry feet, is fairly obscure. Lynx are rarely observed partly because of their secretive nature, and partly because of their naturally low population numbers over large landscapes. "Even in an area with great habitat, there aren't many lynx there, and the ones that are present generally stay hidden," explains Matt Vasquez, wildlife biologist for the U.S Forest Service. Most lynx sightings are reported during the snowy months. So if you are observant while wandering in the high country during winter, you may just spot the tracks of this elusive snow cat.

Lynx are often mistaken for bobcats which are about the same size. There are a few discreet differences between the two cats: the hair tufts on lynx ears are longer (over an inch), lynx coats are shaded while bobcats have spots, and the lynx tail has a distinctive black tip which bobcats do not have. But when it comes to tracks, the lynx tracks are much larger than bobcats. The feet of the lynx are huge, resemble snowshoes and allows these wild cats to walk on snow without sinking. In winter, staying on top of the snow gives them an edge over other competing predators hunting for their main prey -- the snowshoe hare.

On the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests, Vasquez is monitoring wildlife through snow tracking and other monitoring strategies which provide information on occupancy trends, and help identify factors that may contribute to population increases or declines. Snow can be a virtual white board of an animal's daily activities. Each fresh layer erases old tracks and reveals new information about an animal's habits and routines. Coupled with other sign like scat, hair, feathers, blood or urine markings, tracks in snow are like the pages in a book, telling a story about a particular animal. Snow tracking surveys are also a good way to document and observe prey species important to lynx, such as snowshoe hares and red squirrels, and potentially document lynx use of habitats, if lynx tracks are detected along snow tracking routes.

Vasquez initiated a snow tracking program six years ago, involving student volunteers from Western State Colorado University to monitor animal activities in the forest. Several times each winter, students ski or snowshoe along pre-determined routes and identify tracks. According to Vasquez, "students have recorded tracks of coyote, bobcat, mountain lions, short and long tailed weasels, mountain cottontails, snowshoe hares, ground and red squirrels, mice, voles, moose, elk, mule deer and black bear."

Another monitoring technique for lynx involves determining habitat quality for snowshoe hares -- the preferred prey of lynx. A dense understory of herbaceous plants, shrubs and young coniferous trees provides plenty of food for hares and also good cover from predators. Forest Service biologists estimate cover in timbered areas, which gives them a pretty good idea of the quality of habitat for hares. Dense understories equate to thriving hare populations. A food bonanza for lynx!

The results of these long-term monitoring techniques are used by biologists to make better decisions on management activities involving timber treatments (thinning, prescribed fire or commercial harvest) for beetle killed forests. In the short term, treatments could impact lynx in some areas by reducing suitable habitat, leading to reductions of small mammal populations in treated areas. But over the long term, the eventual natural regeneration of replacement stands of young, dense conifers and tree planting reforestation efforts by the Forest Service following harvest would benefit prey species and lynx habitat.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) lynx researchers also bait certain areas with predator smells and shiny objects to lure lynx near remote cameras that capture their occurrence. During the last four years, CPW biologists using remote cameras and snow tracking techniques have monitored 50 areas with suitable lynx habitat in southwest Colorado. Lynx have been documented occupying about 15 of those sites.

Vasquez, continues his part of snow-track monitoring -- searching for those distinctive "snow cat" imprints and ongoing habitat evaluations. Last winter, he got lucky, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife lynx crew trapped and collared one cat on the GMUG National Forest in the Lake City area. "Ultimately we would like to continue to confirm the presence of lynx in suitable habitat throughout our forest, and learn how occupancy changes over time," Vasquez explained.

Of the 3 million acres on the GMUG National Forests, about 47 percent, about 1.4 million acres, is determined to be suitable habitat for lynx. Once again in 2018, the hunt for the elusive snow cat tracks continues.

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