By Shawn Perich
Northern Minnesota appears to have more Canada lynx than it usually does this year. Lynx sightings have been reported throughout the winter in Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties. One lynx has been seen numerous times around Ely, including at the Dorothy Molter Museum and outside the U.S. Forest Service office. Federal wildlife biologists who monitor the lynx population in the Superior National Forest are finding more animals, too.
“We’re seeing a lot of lynx this year,” says Dan Ryan, USFS wildlife biologist for the Laurentian Ranger District.
Every winter, biologists follow lynx tracks in the snow until they find hair or scat, which is collected and sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Center in Montana for DNA analysis. This provides them with an individual identification of the animal and its sex, which is added to a database for the forest. Canada lynx in Minnesota are listed as Threatened on the federal Endangered Species list.
Ryan says the database contains about 180 lynx and 12 unique lynx-bobcat hybrids. First discovered in Minnesota through DNA analysis, hybrids have since been discovered in Maine. The Minnesota hybrids have all been the offspring of a male bobcat and female lynx. Ryan says this may indicate that bobcats, which have become more abundant in northeastern Minnesota in recent years, are more aggressive than lynx.
During the 1990s, the Minnesota DNR claimed that lynx did not consistently reproduce in Minnesota and that lynx seen in the state were mostly migrants from Canada. However, biologists tracking lynx have since documented reproduction every year since 2001. They’ve found 13 kittens this winter, the most ever recorded. Ryan says they may have collected samples from as many as 50 individual lynx.
Why are there more lynx this year? The most likely reason is an uptick in the numbers of snowshoe hares, their primary food source. Ryan says this year lynx have shown up in locations where they haven’t been documented before. Invariably, they show up in places where the hares are.
While a past study followed radio-collared lynx, present monitoring is done exclusively by looking for tracks in the snow, either in areas where lynx are known to exist or in places where sightings are reported. Ryan said a core area for lynx, where they are consistently found, is in the vicinity of Isabella in Lake County. Their home ranges may vary in size. If there is good hare habitat, lynx will stay in a relatively small area. If hares are scarce, they go looking for them.
The DNA analysis often shows lynx from which DNA was collected previously, either as adults or kittens. Biologists have been able to identify and follow family groups over the years. Sometimes, kittens remain with their mother for more than a year.
Ryan believes Minnesota has a viable lynx population, even though there isn’t enough data to estimate the size of the population or its extent in the northern portion of the state. When tracking cats, biologists are limited to somewhat accessible areas—a challenge when the north is blanketed with deep snow. Most of the tracking occurs in Lake County, with less in Cook and St. Louis counties—both of which have suitable lynx habitat. Also, researchers haven’t looked for lynx in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, even though the cats certainly exist there.
The USFS monitors lynx because the agency is required to take threatened or endangered species into account when it is planning activities on the national forest, such as timber harvests or even the construction of recreational trails. Biologists will survey the project area to determine if those species will be affected by the planned activity. Ryan said managing for lynx hasn’t had much effect on timber harvesting activities. In some instances, the growth of young conifers after a harvest provides snowshoe hare habitat, thus attracting lynx.
Some lynx are lost every year due to encounters with people The USFWS keeps track of the “incidental take” of lynx in the state. USFWS biologist Tamara Smith says the agency has 113 records of incidental take since record keeping began in 2001. Last fall and winter, two road-killed lynx were reported, five were reported by trappers—with four released alive and one died, another lynx was shot an one died of an undetermined cause.
Ryan, who has logged about 30 miles on snowshoes tracking lynx, has been lucky enough to see seven of them this winter, including some kittens. Like some other far northern creatures, such as the spruce grouse, lynx are not very wary around people. It isn’t unusual for lynx to linger beside a road or in someone’s backyard even when humans are nearby. Their behavior is very different than that of bobcats, which are shy and elusive.
Biologists monitoring lynx have been seeing more bobcat sign than they did previously and are collecting DNA from them as well. Ryan says northern Minnesota’s bobcats seem to be moving east, into the lynx range. While the two cats are somewhat similar in appearance, lynx have some distinguishing features, including prominently tufted ears, a black-tipped tail and enormous paws that allow them to walk across the top of deep, powdery snow. Last winter, those big feet may have helped lynx outcompete the bobcats invading their turf.
At present, Minnesota’s lynx appear to be holding their own. They have been protected from hunting and trapping in the state for decades. However, Ontario allows lynx trapping across the border. Trappers near Thunder Bay who I chatted with a sport show last February considered lynx common, though not abundant in their trapping areas. Past research found radio-collared lynx moved between Minnesota and Ontario.