The Canada lynx is a creature that thrives on Montana’s long, snowy winters. Its light weight, oversized paws and long legs allow it to practically float over deep snow where other animals would become hopelessly mired. As other predators head to lower elevations during the winter, the lynx finds itself with less competition for food. But, as climate change reduces snow pack and brings earlier spring melt, those same traits leave this beautiful cat at a huge disadvantage. On top of that, its preferred prey is another winter specialist, the snowshoe hare. In fact, the relationship is so close that when the population of hares in Canada and Alaska decline, northern lynx numbers fall as well. Lynx in the Lower 48 depend on snowshoe hare for over 95 % of their winter diet. It’s no surprise, then, that the lynx is now a threatened species within the Lower 48 states.
Both lynx and snowshoe hares depend on a mosaic of spruce-fir forests of varying ages. During winter, hares need the good cover provided by conifer boughs touching the snow surface to protect them from predators and weather, so this is also where Lynx do their winter hunting. In the spring, older forests also provide the fallen wood, rock piles and root wads used by Lynx for dens. Once summer arrives, the cats broaden their habitat into young forest stands. The abundance of hares determines the size of the lynx home range, which can greatly expand during times when prey is scarce. This is one reason why it’s essential to conserve both known home ranges as well as links between large intact pieces of lynx habitat.
As warming temperatures cause snow levels to recede to higher elevations, the cats’ winter habitat will diminish, along with their winter advantage. Lynx could either be forced to hunt in a much smaller area, competing with each other; or vie for prey against other predators -- ones that are more adept hunters in low-snow conditions, and which also prey on lynx. According to research by biologist Dr. John Squires of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, predation and starvation are the biggest causes of lynx death, “Lynx are most vulnerable to predation during the snow-free months when lack of snow allows [mountain] lions and other predators into higher elevation lynx habitat.” He says that starvation occurs overwhelmingly in the winter. (Follow Squires on the trail of the lynx in Montana)
The Nature Conservancy in Montana is stepping up to the challenge. Our recent Clearwater-Blackfoot and historic Montana Legacy projects, have secured the heart of the nearly 40-thousand square miles designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife as critical habitat for Canada lynx. Recent research suggests that the most important Canada Lynx populations in the lower 48 states are on the Crown of the Continent, near Seeley Lake in the Clearwater drainage and in the Garnet Mountains – both the focus of extensive conservation efforts by the Conservancy.
We have a small window of opportunity to prevent the disappearance of this enigmatic cat from Montana. This is why the Conservancy has made such a tremendous investment in conserving habitat at a scale that lynx need to thrive and adapt to the changes brought on by climate change.
-- Bebe Crouse