By Shawn Perich
After a quiet weekend at home, we took a Sunday afternoon drive up the Arrowhead Trail just to enjoy the cold sunshine. In years past, we used to make this drive in hopes of seeing a moose or two. Now we consider it a good day if we see a set of moose tracks somewhere along the 18-mile road through what was once some of the best moose country in northeastern Minnesota.
While the snowbanks were nearly as high as the pickup in some places, we did see a couple of old, snowcovered moose tracks in the deep snow, proving the mighty beasts still exist. We also saw a few tracks left by red fox and snowshoe hares, which are among the very few mammals eking out a living atop the snow during a boreal forest winter. We saw where a pair of river otters crossed the road, sliding down the snowbank, by the Stump River. Otters spend most of the winter beneath the ice.
We turned around where the county road ends at the bridge across the outlet to McFarland Lake. Often by this time of year, enough open water exists in the outlet channel to attract early arriving goldeneye ducks. There was some open water, but apparently not enough for ducks. Spring may have sprung on the calendar, but here, just a couple of miles from the Canadian border, it is still very much winter.
As we started back down the trail, Vikki lamented that she hadn’t seen any wildlife. Like many folks who live around here, she misses the moose. We drove along in silence, enjoying the winter scenery and solitude. Suddenly, we drove by a big cat lying atop the snowbank.
“Did you see the bobcat?” Vikki asked as I braked to a halt.
“Yes I did and it’s lynx,” I answered as put the truck in reverse. “Hopefully it will still be there.”
Canada lynx are less wary of humans that most other critters, so I wasn’t surprised to see it was still posed on the snowbank when I backed up. Vikki pulled her camera from her purse as I pushed the control to roll down her passenger window. The lynx was just a few feet away, presenting a picture-perfect opportunity. Vikki brought up her camera. Seconds ticked away. Before she clicked the shutter, the cat stood and stepped behind a screen of brush that partially blocked it from view. Vikki was able to snap a couple of pics, but the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime lynx portrait got away.
In no hurry to leave, the cat slowly walked into the woods, taking a step or two and then pausing. It was a sizeable animal, perhaps as tall as my yellow Lab, but by no means as heavy. Covered with fluffy fur, it had long legs, a short, black-tipped tail and enormous paws. At best it sunk perhaps four inches into the deep snow. Watching its feline strides, I was struck by thought that a cougar, which I’ve never seen, probably walks much the same way while hunting on bare ground.
This was only the second Canada lynx I’ve seen in the wild. The first time was about 10 years ago when one crossed the Arrowhead Trail in front of my truck on an autumn evening. Interestingly, it was less than two miles from the cat we saw last Sunday. The latter was Vikki’s first lynx sighting.
While Canada lynx are not common, I hear reports of them being seen throughout Cook County nearly every winter. Lynx numbers rise and fall with the abundance of their primary prey, snowshoe hares. Apparently, this has been a good winter for bunnies, because I’ve heard of lynx sightings across northeastern Minnesota.
We may hear about lynx sightings more often these days because people who live and work in the northwoods now pay attention to them. Not so many years ago, the DNR declared Canada lynx did not live and breed in our state, but merely wandered through here from Ontario. This was around the time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering Endangered or Threatened status for lynx populations in the Lower 48. That lynx didn’t live in Minnesota was news to northern folks who still encountered the animals or their tracks in the snow most every winter.
Not all biologists bought the party line either and, with darned good field work, not only located a number of lynx but actually produced photos of a mother with kittens near Isabella. I recall spending a morning in the woods, with the late Joe Foster, an Isabella logger who made it his personal mission to find and photograph lynx in the area. It was he who discovered the kittens.
Within a few years, the researchers documented enough physical evidence of lynx living in Minnesota that the DNR had to acknowledge their existance. The USFWS listed the species as Threatened, which led to some changes in trapping rules, primarily to prevent lynx from being caught in bodygrip traps set for other species. Sometimes I wonder if the DNR’s reluctance to acknowledge Minnesota supported lynx was politically rather than biogically motivated, since the federal rules could have possibly restricted more human activities. What actually happened was the research to document lynx provided scientific information about their distribution and movements in the state and demonstrated that, aside from trapping, there wasn’t a need to develop protective restrictions. While it would be a stretch to say Canada lynx have thrived under Threatened status, they certainly seem to be holding their own.
Walking on top of the snow, I suspect the lynx has few natural predators in its wintry world. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a pair of wolves trying to negotiate deep snow after crossing the highway in front of me. They were having so much difficulty moving through it that I began to wonder if perhaps wolves are having more trouble this winter than the deer, which have longer legs and network of packed trails.
A new competitior for lynx is the bobcat, which has always existed in northern Minnesota, but has become more abundant in recent years. While the snowshoe feet of lynx give them a decided advantage in the snow, biologists have documented interbreeding between the two species in Minnesota. Some northern trappers are concerned that aggressive bobcats are preying upon fishers and may be contributing to a population decline for this popular northern furbearer.
Since lynx are dependent upon snowshoe hares as a food source, what will happen when bunny abundance takes an inevitable tumble? Like ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare numbers rise and fall on a roughly 10-year cycle. Radio-tracking surveys have found lynx will move great distances in search of hares. In such times, many Minnesota lynx may wander north into Ontario. Others will find pockets of cover that continues to hold enough bunnies to feed them. When hares numbers begin their next cyclical population increase, lynx numbers will rise, too.
Research in Minnesota and elsewhere has found Canada lynx are able to coexist with humans and human activities. Logging for instance, may create better habitat for snowshoe hares. However, experience, most recently with moose, has taught us not to take the existance of northern species for granted. Some, like the woodland caribou, are long gone, while others, like the black duck, hold on by a thread. In the broadest sense, declines in all northern species were brought about with changes wrought by man, though specific reasons and circumstances differ. One common thread is that wildlife officials in faraway places are slow to react to diminishing numbers and show little enthusiasm for species restoration.
The problem is northern critters are not only on the southern edge of their native habitat, they are less appreciated by people than common species in more populated places. When whitet-tailed deer or mallard numbers start to slide, people take notice and raise a ruckus with officialdom. When a Canada lynx walks out of the state, no one hears its silent footsteps in the vast forest. And only the people who know the lynx are likely to miss it when it’s gone.