Field Notes: Where's the Lynx?
Does a permanent population of Canada lynx live in northern Minnesota? That's a question wildlife researchers are still trying to answer. "I think we have a very small number, but we do have some lynx," said Paul Burke, biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We may even have some reproduction, but that doesn't make it a viable population."
Minnesota is on the southern edge of the lynx's range, which reaches across Canada and Alaska. The cat's population is notoriously cyclic. High numbers in Minnesota correspond with high numbers in Canada. When Canada's lynx grow scarce, Minnesota's lynx seem to disappear. Because of low numbers in the United States in the past 20 years, the lynx was listed as a federal threatened species in spring 2000.
To learn more about Minnesota's lynx population?or whether one still exists?researchers set up an extensive system of "hair snares," a survey method designed and standardized by federal researchers. (See "The Missing Lynx," Nov.-Dec. 2000 Volunteer.) Each station consisted of a pie pan dangling from fishing line as an attractor, a pad baited with beaver castoreum and catnip oil, and a Velcrolike patch nailed to a nearby tree to snare the hair of any rubbing lynx. Any cat hairs collected were sent to a federal lab in Missoula, Mont., for DNA analysis.
Despite more than 100 hair snares set up and monitored during the fall of 1999 and 2000 in national forests in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, researchers have so far failed to record a single lynx "hit" in the three midwestern states.
While researchers found no lynx, several state residents reported sighting the animals in northern Minnesota. High-quality photos were taken of at least one lynx.
The cats may be on the upswing, Burke said. "It could be that we witnessed the cyclical high already." The number in Minnesota is impossible to estimate but is probably very small, he said.
The brief flurry of lynx activity may reveal a fault with the trapping protocol. "I've been concerned from the start of the project," said Gerald Niemi, director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota-Duluth, and head of the midwestern sampling project. "Potentially the national protocol is too intense in the area sampled and not broad enough in coverage."
Nonetheless, Niemi put out more hair snares last fall and will do so again this winter, to complete the three-year effort to get standardized data on lynx and determine the nature of the population in midwestern states.
"The question is--Is there a viable breeding population?" Niemi said. If so, is it permanent? Is reproduction greater than mortality? Or is the population completely dependent on migrants from Canada? "What is viable is not an easy question," he said.