Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move

Photo by Susan C. Morse.

In the shadows of a February dawn, not far from the town of Greenville, Maine, wildlife biologist Henning Stabins of Plum Creek Timber Company and his colleagues were in search of Lynx canadensis, North America’s only lynx species.

Stabins stepped out of a company truck on a back road at the south end of Moosehead Lake into snow so deep it stopped him cold. Instantly, he was enveloped in the silence of the northwoods, a soundlessness so complete he might have been an astronaut walking in the blue emptiness of space.

In near darkness and below zero temperatures, Stabins met Plum Creek biologist Ray Ary and assistants Wayne and Barbara Plummer of the Northern Pride Lodge in Kokadjo. The Plummers own and run the lodge, where they offer wildlife and hunting guide services and work with Plum Creek to perform lynx surveys during winter months.

The surveys, part of a project to better understand lynx movements and their habitat use in managed forests in the Moosehead Lake region, are conducted two or three days after a snowfall. “We hope to characterize the forest types lynx are traveling through and hunting in,” said Stabins. “We’re gathering the information so we can provide suitable habitat for lynx in a sustainable manner.” Plum Creek currently owns 861,000 acres of working forests in Maine, much of which is in lynx range.

With assistance from the Plummers, the biologists cover more than 10 miles by truck, mostly along Lily Bay Road out of Kokadjo, then traverse roughly the same area by snowmobile. “When we find lynx tracks,” said Stabins, “we document their size, depth, stride, and straddle, note the surrounding forest growth, record GPS measurements of location, and obtain a compass reading on the lynx’s direction of travel.”

The project began in 2010, and as of November 2014, 26 surveys had been conducted and 48 lynx tracks, some perhaps from the same lynx, had been observed. During three of the five years, family groups (adults with kittens) were recorded. Only two surveys were done in the winter of 2014-15 due to frigid temperatures and prohibitively deep snow, but the data that were collected show that Maine’s lynx population is on the upswing. In January, tracks of two lynx pairs traveling together were found. February brought a bonanza with the discovery of tracks from 12 lynx: seven individuals, one pair, and one group of three.

Stabins, Ary, and the Plummers loaded snowmobiles and took off from the Northern Pride Lodge. A mile down the trail, Wayne suddenly slowed his sled. “Lynx and hare tracks ahead,” he shouted over the engine’s whine. The tracks running to and fro were evidence of a frantic snowshoe hare hoping to escape its archenemy.

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

Serious snowshoes: huge feet help lynx maneuver in deep snow. Photo by Susan C. Morse.

The Plummers seem to be lucky charms for lynx sightings; they’ve spotted lynx many times since they moved to northern Maine 15 years ago. One morning, Wayne crossed paths with a mother lynx and two kittens. “The mom passed by me first, at maybe 30 yards away, then the kittens went by even closer, 20 yards or so. When they smelled my scent, they slunk to the ground and surveyed the area, trying to figure out what this new thing was. Then mom made a sound from farther along, and they wasted no time tearing off after her. Let’s see if we’re as fortunate today.”

A rustling came from behind white birches that lined the trail. Would translucent green eyes soon meet ours? “Not this time,” said a disappointed Ary as he jumped off his sled and peered into the woods. From the tracks, it looked like we just missed a lynx as it crossed from treeline to treeline.

Two Species, One Future?

Here at the edge of the spruce-fir forest that extends across Canada and reaches south into the northernmost United States, lynx seem to have it all: their main prey, snowshoe hare, the brushy woods the hares prefer, and the deep winter snows to which lynx and hare have adapted. Both have thick cushions of hair on the soles of their large feet, which serve as snowshoes.

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

Plum Creek Timber Company’s lynx surveys record data on the size, depth, stride, and location of any lynx tracks that are found. Photo by Cheryl Lyn Dybas.

In boreal forests, lynx populations are generally in sync with those of their hare prey. Snowshoe hare numbers peak about every 10 years, with lynx numbers reaching highs a year or two later. This year is expected to be a peak for hares in Canada, according to biologist Jeff Bowman of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. But the lynx-hare cycle isn’t as clear in northern New England, likely due to the patchiness of the spruce-fir forest south of Canada. Hares and lynx are present in good numbers in places where this forest is extensive, such as near Greenville. Farther south in Maine – and toward the southern portions of New Hampshire and Vermont – both animal species, along with the spruce-fir forest, peter out.

Biologist Jennifer Vashon of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said that the state’s last estimate, developed in 2006, was that there were 750 to 1,000 lynx living in Maine, not including kittens. “We think the population has grown since then,” she said “and that lynx have expanded their range.” State biologists are conducting a new survey and plan to have an updated estimate by 2018. Maine’s lynx may be doing well enough that they’re fostering new populations in New Hampshire and Vermont – states these snow cats haven’t been seen in for half a century. Several lynx, including kittens, have been glimpsed along the edges of snowy roads in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. Just as we do, lynx use roads for travel, especially in winter. Vermont and New Hampshire drivers – and skiers and snowmobilers – might find that they’re sharing remote highways and trails with creatures some have called ghost cats of the northern forest.

Shifting Populations

The history of the lynx in the Northeast is ambiguous. There’s abundant circumstantial evidence that they’ve existed – at least on and off – in northern Maine for centuries, but just how common they’ve been is hard to pin down.

Part of the problem is the nomenclature of lynx: in the 1800s and early 1900s, both lynx and bobcats had interchangeable colloquial names, among them the “wildcat.”

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

A pair of lynx encountered in 2010 on a snowmobile trail in northern Vermont. Photo by Michael Bancroft.

Still, some historical reports do have a telling level of sophistication. “I have been informed of another kind of Lynx in this State [Maine], but have never seen one of that kind [bobcat],” wrote J.G. Rich in 1862 in The Second Annual Report upon the Natural History and Geology of the State of Maine. “It is said they live in the open cultivated regions, and have no fur on the bottoms of their feet, and are not so thickly furred, neither so handsome.”

In 1897, fur-trader Manly Hardy of Brewer, Maine, made the following note: “Lynx were so abundant that several hundred skins were sold in this market every year till about the last of the war [1865], when in a short time all had left, so that not a single skin was offered for several years. Then they returned in such numbers that within a few years after they first came, I was buying some 200 yearly.” This observation fits with the idea of a lynx/hare cycle, and cyclical periods of boom and bust.

Researchers Christopher Hoving, William Krohn, and Ronald Joseph used museum records, bibliographic records, and interviews to reconstruct lynx history in the United States, and concluded that before the 1900s, lynx were more widely distributed in the Northeast than they are today, ranging from Pennsylvania north to Quebec. But by 1913, lynx were mostly relegated to the forests of western and northern Maine.

Unregulated hunting and trapping and conversion of forests to agricultural land played a role in the lynx’s inability to maintain viable populations in the region, but another intriguing theory holds that climate may have played a role, as well.

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

A lynx trapped by Ray Evans in Crawford Notch, N.H., circa 1934. Photo courtesy of David Govatski.

Between about 1300 and the mid-1800s, the northern hemisphere went through a period of cooling known as the Little Ice Age. During that time, snow fell over a longer season than today – sometimes from September through May. Then temperatures gradually warmed through the rest of the 1800s, meaning there was less snow and more competition from other carnivores.

When there’s deep snow, lynx have an advantage over other predators. They’re lightweight and have large paws, which gives them what scientists call low foot-loading, or weight per area of paw. They also have long legs, the better to walk through deep snow. “When comparing the foot-loading and leg length of Canada lynx, bobcat, and several other forest carnivores, Canada lynx were distinct from the other carnivores that were adapted by either long legs (such as coyote) or low foot-loading (such as marten), but not both,” state the researchers in Northeastern Naturalist.

But when there’s not snow, the more aggressive bobcat might displace the lynx. The two species are close relatives and, when living together, compete for food and space.

In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lynx records from the 1960s were mostly from above 3,280 feet in forests dominated by balsam fir and black spruce – areas that would have had substantially more snow than the valleys.

In the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, the distribution of lynx – a species that’s now extirpated from the state – may have been similar. Rainer Brocke, wildlife biologist emeritus at the State University of New York at Syracuse, estimates that lynx preferred Adirondack spruce-fir forests with deep snow at elevations above 2,953 feet. Nonetheless, a lynx reintroduction attempt in the late 1980s in the High Peaks region failed. Several lynx were killed by cars and trucks along roads. Others dispersed to points as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the south and Quebec and Ontario to the north.

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

Lynx and snowshoe hare skeletons look remarkably alike. To catch the hare, one must be like the hare: a long, featherweight torso, extra-long hind legs, and huge hind feet for extra support atop deep snow. Running tracks of lynx and snowshoe hare look the same, as well, with huge bedroom slippers for hind feet landing forward of the front feet impressions to propel the next leap. Photo by Susan C. Morse, mount created by Keeping Track.

The planet is heating up. So why, considering the warmer temperatures, are lynx returning now?

What likely lured many lynx to northern Maine, says Stabins, traces back to a tiny native insect, the eastern spruce budworm. Budworms go on spruce-killing sprees in the Northeast every 30 to 60 years. The last onslaught was in the late 1970s and 1980s, when an estimated 25 million cords of spruce and fir were felled in one 13-year span. With millions of dollars worth of timber rotting on the stump, extensive salvage harvesting ensued. In the early 1980s, between 80,000 and 100,000 acres of forest were clearcut each year in Maine. By the mid-1990s, these clearcuts had grown back into a patchwork of early successional habitat, and snowshoe hare followed. Thirty years later, these clearcut areas are maturing to the point where the hare population is beginning to decline, which may be one reason why lynx are ranging farther.

Ambassadors of the Northern Forest

Although lynx don’t recognize frontiers, we do. The cats are managed completely differently in places as little as a mile apart. In Canada, for example, limited trapping is allowed in most provinces, though it’s tightly regulated and seasons are closed to coincide with low points in the hare cycle. Hunting and trapping lynx are not allowed in any of the lower 48 states of the United States. Here, lynx were listed in 2000 as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In January 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a formal five-year review of lynx and their threatened status. The review could result in lynx retaining their threatened classification, dropping down to “delisted,” or moving up to endangered status, according to Jim Zelenak of the Fish and Wildlife office in Helena, Montana, who is leading the review.

Among many questions is the extent of New Hampshire and Vermont’s recently discovered lynx populations.

“For the past 30 years, lynx sightings and tracks have been intermittently documented in New Hampshire, with little consistency until 2010 and 2011, when tracks and sightings became common in Pittsburg, near the Canadian border,” said biologist Jillian Kilborn of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. During the fall of 2011, a group of hunters spotted lynx kittens on a Pittsburg logging road, Kilborn explained, “prompting us to make a concerted effort to document the distribution and abundance of lynx in the state.”

Lynx were regularly recorded during the first two years of the survey (2011 and 2012) in the towns of Pittsburg, Cambridge, and Success. Lynx were again seen in Pittsburg in the winter of 2013-14. In the winter of 2014-15, added Kilborn, “we detected a further expansion of lynx range beyond Pittsburg.” Next door in Vermont, the state has had at least 10 confirmed “citizen sightings” of lynx since 2010, the last of which was in October 2013, according to biologist Chris Bernier of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “Five of these were of tracks. One was of three lynx together – a presumed family group – while another appeared to be two adults together. The other sightings were all of single individuals.”

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

Trail camera shots are helping to document the presence of lynx in New Hampshire and Vermont. Photo courtesy of NH Fish and Game.

Although wildlife managers don’t know exactly how many lynx Vermont has, a small number has likely become established in the state’s Northeast Kingdom. In March 2010, a snowmobiler snapped a photo of two adult lynx, likely a breeding pair, on a trail in the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Almost every winter since, lynx have been present. In 2013, for example, scientists at the refuge obtained a trail camera photo of one lynx and detected tracks of an adult female with four kittens. In winter 2014, one lynx was photographed by a trail camera, but no sign of lynx was visible this past winter, according to refuge biologist Rachel Cliche.

New families of lynx may be taking up residence in Vermont. Scientists have documented lynx reproduction in the Nulhegan Basin, a section of the refuge, in 2012 and 2013. “Although that doesn’t mean that reproduction was confined to this one spot, if any additional reproduction did occur it was likely limited,” said Bernier. “But we can confirm the birth of at least four lynx kittens in Vermont.”

The future for lynx in the Northeast is as hazy as the past. The next spruce budworm outbreak is underway in Canada. It’s caused severe defoliation in some 10 million acres of spruce-fir forest in Quebec and “is knocking on Maine’s door,” said Stabins. And yet the forest is very different today than it was in 1975 – for starters, there’s a lot less spruce and fir. Forest practices have changed, too, and heavy cutting laws will limit the scope of any salvage harvesting that takes place.

That could be good or bad for lynx, or good and bad. Less early successional habitat will mean fewer hares. And yet a more selective harvest, which leaves more mature, cone-bearing softwoods, could mean more red squirrels, which may serve as an important secondary food source to lynx in years of low hare numbers.

Ghost Cats of the Northern Forest: Canada Lynx on the Move Image

Lynx eating a snowshoe hare. Photo by Susan C. Morse.

Forest fragmentation will present a challenge to lynx. Higher road densities, increased residential development, and wider use of snowmobiles and other devices that compact snow could hurt lynx by helping their rivals, bobcats and coyotes. Maintaining forest connectivity between small populations of lynx in the United States and larger populations in Canada, will also be crucial.

But at this moment in time, the return of the lynx in the Northeast is a success story. Today, lynx are clearly present in parts of the northwoods where they haven’t existed in decades. Harry McCarthy of Woodland, Maine, can attest to all this. In January 2013, McCarthy was host to a group of four lynx parading up his driveway. He grabbed his camera and was able to get a few good shots through his living room window before the lynx disappeared into his woods. McCarthy posted the photos on his Facebook page, and soon the pictures went viral. Biologists believe the four lynx were likely an adult female and her three eight- to nine-month-old kittens.

Across northernmost New England, more lynx may be watching us from driveways and backyards, roads and snowmobile trails, than we know. In Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and beyond, are we watching out for them?

Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, covers the natural world for National Geographic, Ocean Geographic, National Wildlife, Yankee, and many other publications.


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