The missing lynx – One species’ survival story

by Jill Poskanzer

As an avid zoogoer and lifelong cat lover, the highlight of a visit to any new Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited institution, for me, is the big cats. I love to watch jewel-bright tigers stalking along the edge of their enclosure, mouths open, hungry for their eager fans just beyond their reach; to see lions lounging in the sun, moving lazily with the rays as the shadows claim more and more of their territory; to seek, so far fruitlessly, the elusive jaguar that allegedly lives at the Los Angeles Zoo (if any LA Zoo employees are reading this, I would love to come meet this jaguar; please email me at your convenience).

My personal favorite animal in the world is the snow leopard, whose big paws and fluffy tails have captured many a heart. Usually they are sleeping when I come to visit them, but lately I’ve had good luck, and have excitedly observed a few rolling over and cleaning themselves, eyes alert and curious. We’re lucky to share this planet with such fascinating creatures, who look so soft and inviting, but sharpen their claws in the wilds of their homes.

In the Americas, we have few native big cats. The largest is the aforementioned jaguar, but in North America, and in the United States in particular, the only remaining endemic big feline is the mountain lion (or cougar, or puma, or catamount– take your pick, they’re all the same large friend!). However, there are also three other “wild cats” that inhabit America: the ocelot, the bobcat, and the Canada lynx. Of these three, you might most easily call to mind the distinctive features of the Canada lynx– tufted fur at the tops of their ears, large paws for padding across cold surfaces, and fluffy neck fur that calls to mind sideburns. Described as “a gray ghost of the North” by the National Wildlife Federation, these medium-sized cats used to call large swathes of North America their home, but apart from Alaska and Canada, they have been heavily reduced to “stable populations” in only four states below the Canadian border.

What has caused the lynx’s territory to be so greatly diminished? Human interference, naturally:

“The lynx’s gradual disappearance from the contiguous United States resulted from human activities that have compromised both the lynx and its habitat. In the 19th century, trapping put heavy pressure on the species. Now the cat’s survival in the U.S. is primarily jeopardized by habitat destruction and fragmentation. Today the most suitable lynx habitat in the West is on public land.” (National Wildlife Federation)

Habitat fragmentation is clarified by the NWF as habitat being “cut up into fragments by roads and development.” NWF also notes that “these fragments of habitat may not be large or connected enough to support species that need a large territory where they can find mates and food.”

Defenders of Wildlife notes that “Lynx, like other forest hunters, play an important ecological role. As a mid-size carnivore, lynx target smaller prey species that reproduce relatively quickly.” To maintain the ecological balance, creatures such as the lynx must be preserved.

Beyond habitat destruction caused directly by humans, climate change is the biggest threat facing the Canada lynx. Defenders of Wildlife notes that rising temperatures impact the lynx in two distinct ways: by decreasing the extent of boreal forests, their native habitats, and by decreasing the amount of snow cover throughout the year. The increased effects of climate change on boreal forests are potentially devastating. “Twenty percent of the carbon held in forests in the world is in the boreal forest,” JSTOR Daily notes. But there is evidence that the forests are already beginning to become carbon sources as opposed to carbon sinks. “Boreal forests, the mixture of spruce and fir trees that the lynx depend on, could vanish completely from Maine by the end of the century,” DoW outlines in an online publication entitled “Climate Change and the Canada Lynx.” And according to a 2020 study, if the temperature continues to climb, “The areal extent of the North American Boreal Forest biome is predicted to shrink by 25% by the end of the century.”

Defenders of Wildlife also notes that, in addition to the climatic threats, “sudden losses of large forest areas are bad news for lynx, because they need forests with a mix of different-age trees.” So an increase in clearcutting, the harmful and destructive practice of mass-logging trees, is also directly affecting the already threatened lynx population. A study from the U.S. Forest Service notes that “Home ranges of Canada lynx are composed of a mosaic of forest structures, and the amount of connected mature forest…  is important to the ability of female lynx to produce kittens.” And it can take up to 40 years after a clearcut for the lynx to return to that area of the forest.

What impact will the continued loss of the Canada lynx have on the world? One way is that the snowshoe hare population would increase, seeing as the two species are intrinsically linked. Essentially, the lynx has evolved to hunt the snowshoe hare in particular, and in turn, the hare has evolved to avoid the lynx at all costs. Additionally, canada lynx are specifically adapted to hunting in snow, unlike their main competitors, coyotes and bobcats. Less snow causes more competition, which means the already bereft lynx must fight even harder to survive.

The lynx was classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2000, but in 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recommended “removing protections” from the species. Defenders of Wildlife notes that “This recommendation dodges the court order requiring the FWS to publish a recovery plan for the lynx, now more than 15 years overdue.” But intervention of groups such as Defenders of Wildlife has already had a positive impact on the future of the Canada lynx.

Just recently, in April 2022, conservation groups secured a court order in the state of Montana which states that habitat in the southern Rockies will be considered to be dedicated “critical habitat” for the lynx. “Critical habitat,” as defined by WildEarth Guardians, “is area designated by the federal government as essential to the survival and recovery of a species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once designated, federal agencies must make special efforts to protect critical habitat from damage or destruction.” Creating critical habitat spaces for threatened species has shown to help stabilize populations, and is “key to the recovery of listed species.” It’s an exciting and necessary step in re-establishing the lynx population in North America.

It’s wonderful that so many dedicated environmentalists and conservation groups are helping the lynx. But if you’re like me, you probably want to know how you, too, can help these wild cats. So here are a few small things you can do today:

  1. Adopt a Canada lynx! Not literally, as these are wild animals, but your money helps to support the lynx populations and protect their habitats. You can adopt a lynx through Defenders of Wildlifeor National Wildlife Federation, among other organizations.
  2. Donate to organizations helping animals like the lynx. You can set up a monthly donationif you want to make it a recurring thing!
  3. Educate people around you about the importance of the lynx, whether that’s by talking about the species, linking articles about their plight, or sharing this very blog post today! Every conversation helps, even if it feels like a small step.
  4. Contact your representatives to ask them to support climate change legislation! If you’re anxious about phone calls, you can use their web contact forms.
  5. Become a member of the Sierra Club, and help fight against the tide of climate change, which affects many more species than just the lynx.
  6. It’s really helpful to find something that speaks to each individual, so if it’s cats for you, like it is for me, that’s amazing! But maybe it’s the polar bear, or maybe it’s honeybees, or maybe it’s not an animal at all. But climate change affects all of us, and for those who don’t yet understand the broader impact it will have on their lives, perhaps seeing its impact on the lives of other creatures will help change their minds.

My family lives in Minnesota, and next time I’m home, I’m planning to go to the Minnesota Zoo, where I can see Canada lynx up close and personal. I hope that by the time I visit, and look into the eyes of these magnificent creatures, I’ll know I’ve made a difference, even a small one, in their resurgence in the wild.

Jill Poskanzer is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.

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