Climate change menaces the future of lynx

Over 20 years, environmentalists have won big battles to protect lynx in Washington state and beyond. But the wild cats are designed for deep snow and preying on the snowshoe hare that lives in that habitat. More rain and less snow, as climate change is bringing, spells trouble.

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A Canadian lynx

Over 20 years, environmentalists have won big battles to protect lynx in Washington state and beyond. But the wild cats are designed for deep snow and preying on the snowshoe hare that lives in that habitat. More rain and less snow, as climate change is bringing, spells trouble.

When we spent the weekend before Memorial Day in Winthrop, clumps of ellow Balsamroot — a variety of sunflower — were blooming in the hills, and swallows were landing in the street to gather material for nest-building. West of town, the North Cascades Highway was still blocked by snow. I remembered a trip to Winthrop nearly 20 years ago, when the area was also balanced on the cusp of winter and spring. I went out with a Forest Service employee named Tod Johnson to check lynx habitat in the mountains north of the highway. Conditions were still so wintery that we used snowmobiles to travel up the logging roads.

On this survey, we were checking to see if hares, on which the lynx prey, preferred a thick tangle of young lodgepole that had grown naturally, or a less-dense stand of young lodgepole that had been artifiically thinned. We found lots of hare pellets in the thinned stand. But in the tangled, natural stand we found even more. On a snowy stretch of narrow road, we also saw what seemed to be lynx tracks. They were too widely spaced to have been made by a lynx walking normally. The animal must have been running. Toward what kind of a future was at the time very much an open question.

The lynx's future remains uncertain. After decades spent navigating the labyrinth of state and federal politics, agencies and court, environmentalists have won legal protection for them and their habitat. And yet Lynx populations in Washington and elsewhere still face threats, among them a phenomenon that was barely considered in the early 1990s: rapid climate change.

Lynx are designed for deep snow. They're specialists. Basically, they're like bobcats (which evolved from them) with broad paws that act as snowshoes. Farther north and in the chilly Midwest, they're found at low elevations. As you move south, lynx habitat gets higher and higher.

In Washington, lynx habitat lies above 4,500 feet. A predator adapted to deep snow needs a prey species that is also adapted to life on the drifts. That would be the snowshoe hare. Lynx will eat other things — one wouldn't want to be a squirrel that caught the eye of a hungry lynx — but mostly, they eat snowshoe hares. The hares, in turn, need greenery that is tender enough to nibble, high enough off the ground so that it won't be buried by snow, but low enough for a hare standing on the snow to reach. That would be lodgepole pine from 15 to 40 years old. Therefore, lynx need extensive stands of young lodgepole. They also need small areas of old-growth for denning; a lack of big open spaces such as large clearcuts or even roads, which they're reluctant to cross; and various other things. But hares and young lodgepole are basic.

On the day when the Forest Service's Johnson and I were looking at the lynx-hare connection, lynx populations all along the northern tier of states bordering Canada seemed in decline. In the Kettle Range, which juts into Washington from the Canadian border east of the Okanogan valley, they had been largely trapped out when fur prices were high in the 1970s. The population in the Okanogan National Forest and the adjoining Loomis state forest seemed to be as healthy as any in the United States. But it was threatened by logging, road-building, poaching (Washington had outlawed lynx trapping,in 1991.) fire, and loss of connection to the larger lynx populations north of the border.

In 1991, Conservation Northwest, then the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, and other environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lynx population of the Okanogan region of north-central Washington. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) refused, saying that because the lynx traveled freely back and forth across the Canadian border, there was no evidence that the Okanogan animals made up a distinct population. (The state of Washington treated the border as a hard barrier and decided that south of the border, the lynx was in trouble. East of the Okanogan, it concluded, outside the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, which lies in the Selkirks northeast of Metaline Falls, all lynx populations were "vulnerable due to low numbers, forest maturation, past habitat alteration, reduction of conductivity to British Columbia, reduced lynx immigration from core populations in Canada, and reduced reoccupation of suitable habitat.")

Environmental groups then petitioned the FWS to list all lynx in the Lower 48. The FWS resisted. Some people said Clinton administration officials were afraid to use the Endangered Species Act lest opponents react by repealing or gutting it — in other words, don't use it or lose it.

Just east of the Okanogan National Forest, the state's Loomis forest had no restriction on logging or road-building. (Roads don't only inhibit lynx movement; they also allow poachers to ride snowmobiles into lynx territory.) Largely to protect lynx habitat, Conservation Northwest led an effort that ultimately raised $16.5 million to buy the Loomis from the state trusts so that the state could manage it for conservation. (The campaign raised enough money to meet the state's origiinal price, but a local legislator called for another appraisal, that appraisal jacked the price at the last minute by $3.5 million, and only a large contribution by Paul Allen let Conservation Northwest close the purchase before the deadline.) The deal was finally approved at the beginning of 2000.

Later in 2000, after losing consistently in the courts, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed the lynx as threatened. It also started working on a critical habitat designation that covered lynx territory in Washington, Montana, and other states along the Canadian border all the way to Maine, plus Colorado, where lynx had been reintroduced in 1999. The Bush administration then came up with a critical habitat rule that excluded national forests, slashing the draft designation by 90 percent, to 1841 square miles. Needless to say, environmental groups sued. Then, the Department of the Interior Inspector General reported that Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald had manipulated scientific findings — including he Endangered Species Program's scientific reports — to favor businesses. In 2007, the FWS acknowledged that the rule "may not be supported by the record, may not be adequately explained, or may not comport with the best available scientific and commercial information," and withdrew it.

Two years ago, the government issued a rule that protects some 39,000 square miles. Environmental groups sued once again. They pointed out that the new rule didn't explicitly consider the effects of climate change.

All lynx populations are threatened by climate change. If there's more rain and less snow, the big paws of lynx won't do them much good, and snowshoe hares will make themselves scarce. To find suitable habitat, the cats will have to go higher. As pockets of habitat grow more isolated, connections among them will grow more important.

The threat of climate change hangs heavily over the long-term future of lynx in the Pacific Northwest. "The lynx, like the wolverine, is highly dependent on a highly persistent snowpack," says Dave Werntz, science and conservation director of Conservation Northwest. "All predictions are that we will be losing our snowpack." And, in fact — this year (and other outliers) notwithstanding — snowpack in the western mountains has already started a steep decline.

The plaintiffs also challenged the new rule for excluding areas where there was clearly lynx habitat that might or might not be occupied. Most of those areas lie in Montana, which may have the Lower 48s' largest stable lynx population. (At times, Maine — to which animals disperse from eastern Canada — seems to have the largest numbers.) The most controversial, probably, lie in the southern Rockies, where there is a long-running conflict between protecting lynx habitat and developing ski resorts. And one is in the Kettle Range. A federal judge had ruled in their favor. Early this year, the government dropped its appeal. The FWS is now considering a revised critical habitat rule.

So the Loomis has been saved and lynx have been listed for more than a decade, and the critical habitat designation, though it may still fall short, is an order of magnitude larger than the Bush version.

Lynx, then, should be living happily ever after. But they're not. Wildlife biologist Gary Koehler, who has studied lynx for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, explains that numbers are down. No one knows exactly what those numbers are, but clearly, there are fewer lynx than there were 20 years ago. There's less lynx habitat, too.

Koehler explains that great swaths of lodgepole in the Okanogan and the Loomis have been destroyed by fire New lodgepole will grow. Twenty years down the road, there will be lots of young lodgepole, lots of snowshoe hares, and — with luck — lots of lynx. But first, the lynx have to make it through those next couple of decades.

Why the big fires now? Werntz of Conservation Northwest blames years of fire suppression. Fires that might have stayed relatively small if they had burned frequently had acres of dead trees and decades of accumulated kindling, so once they got started, they just took off. Still, there's nothing unnatural about big fires in lodgepole pine country. Those woods have burned for millennia. Of course, in the good old days, if part of the forest — even a really big part — went up in smoke, Washington lynx had plenty of other places to live. Now, they have fewer options.

"These boreal forests are really fire-driven," Koehler says. Consequently, Werntz says, "lynx is very much a fire-dependent species." Lodgepole ages. Hare populations drop. Lodgepole burns. Lynx leave. Lodgepole grows back. The hare population skyrockets. (Hares may not be quite the same as rabbits, but they breed like rabbits.) Lynx numbers increase. The hare population crashes again. And so on. This adds up to "kind of a boom-and-bust ecology," Koehler says.

A big lynx boom north of the border can have far-reaching effects. With lots of naturally solitary cats reluctant to share the same patches of forest, lynx start moving out, traveling long distances to vacant or sparsely inhabited habitat elsewhere. Lynx travel long distances — an animal radio-collared in the North Cascades wound up near Prince George, B.C., 368 miles away — so they don't need habitat alternatives right next door. "Dispersing lynx can travel through pretty un-lynxlike habitat," Koehler says. There are "historical records of lynx . . . ending up in the cornfields of Nebraska." Still, lynx do need safe routes from one piece of habitat to another, and they're more likely to reach a place if they find stepping stones of habitat along the way.

Despite the fires, lynx still live in the Okanogan. But lynx in the Kettles still haven't come back. People report seeing them, but no one suggests there's anything like a self-sustaining population. It's hard to know exactly what's going on there.

What's the problem? Koehler explains that the Kettles function as a small, largely isolated island of habitat. They need a connection to other places where lynx live. Some biologists think that even if trappers hadn't hammered Kettle Range lynx in the 1970s, the population would eventually have crashed because of that isolation.

"It looks like the habitat is very good" in the Kettles, says Shawn Sartorius, the Montana-based U.S. FWS biologist who's in charge of the critical habitat review, but obviously, "the area is not very large" and "the historic [population] level up to the present time is very spotty." It's hard to figure out even recent history, he says, because, although trappers bagged lots of lynx there in the 1970s, "we had a huge pulse of lynx, an unprecedented pulse of lynx, from Canada in the 1960s and '70s." The Kettles could have been filled with migrants, rather than with a self-sustaining populations They may be nearly devoid of lynx now because "we haven't had a pulse from Canada in quite a few years."

Koehler suggests that "there was a fire history ... that probably would have positioned the Kettles and the Okanogan and elsewhere as very good lynx habitat" in the 1960s and '70s. In other words, the woods had burned a couple of decades earlier, young lodgepole had grown up, the place was full of hares, and the lynx did what lynx do. But whether or not lynx can do it again in the Kettles isn't clear.

Koehler isn't optimistic. He suggests that if we want lynx back in the Kettles, we may have to introduce animals from farther north — just as was done in Colorado. (It's too soon to know if the Colorado population can persist long-term, but so far so good.) "He may be right about that," Werntz says. "Lynx are there already. ... However, augmenting that population likely would be beneficial."

Arguably, the Kettles are important to the animals whether or not lynx live there now. First, as the courts have recognized, if you want a species to recover, you have to preserve habitat that's currently vacant or sparsely used, so that a growing population will have someplace to live. Second, they may be important to the survival of larger populations to the east and west. Werntz suggests that the Kettles represent a "critical linkage" between larger areas of habitat in the Selkirks and Cascades.

Koehler says that an east-west connection would give lynx "more latitude, more options." So would an improved connection to the larger lynx populations in Canada. "Historically, I think that [movement of animals down from Canada] has always been the real driving force," behind population increases here, Koehler says. Arguably, no lynx population in the Lower 48 — even in the Colorado Rockies — can survive long-term without a Canadian connection.

Koehler explains that genetically, lynx are pretty much the same throughout North America. You see some genetic variation among populations of bobcats and cougars, but not among lynx. Therefore, all lynx populations have been, at least indirectly, in genetic contact. Dispersal and connectivity have been an integral part of the lynx story.

Historically, lynx populations farther north have gone through booms and busts, following the yo-yoing of snowshoe hares. When there are lots of lynx, some of them hit the road, pushing down into habitat on this side of the border. Arguably, that's why there were lots of lynx in the Kettle Range in the 1960s and '70s. Without a secure connection across the border, this southerly movement can't happen.

At this point, it's hard for lynx to get past the trappers and development in southern British Columbia and Alberta. There are still lots of lynx north of the border, although in B.C., too, the populaton seems to be in decline. There may be 1,000 lynx in all the nooks and crannies of the Lower 48 states. In British Columbia, there are tens of thousands. But if it gets harder for them to cross the border, the prospects for restoring lynx to the Kettles or keeping them in the Okanogan look slim.

In fact, without a Canadian connection, lynx throughout the Lower 48 would probably be toast. "We don't think we have large enough chunks of lynx habitat anywhere in the Lower 48 states to where you could basically cut off Canada and expect the lynx to persist," Sartorius of the FWS says. "The connectivity to Canada ... is critical for any of the lynx in the Lower 48 to make it." This isn't a problem that the U.S. can solve on its own.

But the U.S. can manage forests in this state and beyond in ways that will allow the trees to grow back without having the areas sliced and diced by new roads, and the U.S. can provide a combination of refuges and connecitons that will enable them to survive until the trees grow back and then return to the burned-out areas.

And we'll have to wait and see. We "had a robust population" in the Okanogan and the Loomis, Werntz says. But now, "there's going to be a 20-year lag" before the lodgepole grows back. Basically, the fires "have re-set the clock on lynx habitat in that area."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.