Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expanded critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx by nearly 40-thousand square miles. In Montana, much of this area is on the Crown of the Continent, within the Montana Legacy Project. Recent research suggests that the most important Canada Lynx populations in the lower 48 states are near Seeley Lake in the Clearwater drainage and in the Garnet Mountains – both the focus of extensive conservation efforts by the Conservancy. Protecting vital lynx habitat was a major reason we created the Montana Legacy Project.
Lynx have evolved some very specific preferences and abilities that give them an advantage over other predators, but a precarious foothold in the U.S. This cat is engineered for western Montana’s long, snowy winters. Its relatively light weight and extremely broad paws 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. However, its close dependence on another winter specialist, the snowshoe hare, leaves it in a vulnerable position. The problem is that this relationship is so strong that when the population of hares declines, lynx numbers fall as well.
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.
Another reason to protect high quality, connected lynx habitat is climate change. 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)
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 - This article is from the Spring 2009 edition of Big Sky Landmarks