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 Canada Lynx on the Border

International conference focuses on issues for conservation

Crossing Borders

One problem with Canada lynx is clear: They move about heedless of the border between Canada and the U.S. where the animal’s status changes from a harvested furbearer to a federally listed threatened species.

To discuss the challenges faced by this bi-national wild cat, 70 lynx biologists and resource managers from 10 states and two provinces of Canada gathered in Grand Portage, Minn., for “Canada Lynx on the Border: Biological and Political Realities for Conservation Planning,” held October 24 – 26.

Lynx in Canada are not a priority species of concern and their future appears secure, unlike populations in northern U.S., explained Justina Ray from Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. Her country has abundant boreal forests, a preferred habitat for lynx. Woodland caribou, by contrast, are threatened and are a high priority species in Canada.

“But considering the number of threats facing boreal forest integrity at the southern edge, it’s probably time for Canadians to begin focusing on lynx a bit more,” Ray added.

The lynx—with its black-tipped ears and short tail, large feet and deep fur—is a treat to see in Minnesota. But keeping the current population thriving is going to be a challenge, not just in Minnesota, but from Maine to Montana, too.

The gathered researchers acknowledged that northern lynx are important to the southern lynx populations and management needs to be regional, not politically divided. Yet, while the U.S., with its Endangered Species Act, mandates that resource agencies conserve endangered and threatened species, Canada has no such mandate on the lynx, except in some eastern provinces. However, there are some signs of increasing interest north of the 49th parallel, with two new university-led studies initiated in Ontario and Alberta.

The discussions at this conference are important. Funding is needed to move recent knowledge gathered on lynx biology and ecology into management strategies that will preserve habitat and reduce mortality for these wild cats.

Six problems for the Lynx

Through the course of the conference long lists were made of problems faced by lynx populations in the U.S. Conference leader Rich Baker helped the group distill the list to six compelling problems: forest management and its affect on snowshoe hare population (lynx food); forest fragmentation limiting movement, trapping in Canada and other human-caused mortality, lynx monitoring techniques, climate change, and lastly, the different priorities of U.S. and Canada.

Climate change received a lot of votes as a big concern for lynx. In northern Minnesota, the expected warmer climate will likely cause a decline in lynx populations, but, as biologist Jerry Niemi explained, it depends on what happens to the snowshoe hare, the primary food source for lynx. Niemi is center director at the University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI).

“I don’t think we actually appreciate how big of an impact climate change is going to have,” said Niemi. “Lynx seem to need at least four months of continuous snow cover and there’s a lot of uncertainty about future precipitation, specifically snow fall. And we expect northern Minnesota's forest composition to change as the climate continues to warm."

Providing young conifer forests for hares, as well as corridors of movement that keeps the cats away from roads and traps, are important to their survival. The five-year Canada lynx research project at NRRI found that most lynx mortality in the state was caused by human interference—hit by train or car, legally trapped in Canada or incidentally trapped in Minnesota.

NRRI’s Ron Moen, lead researcher on the Minnesota lynx project, said he accepts that the two countries have different priorities about lynx.

“We can’t expect trappers in Canada to reduce harvests because the U.S. has low populations, and we just heard that harvest of lynx in Ontario is relatively low anyway,” Moen said. “It’s a matter of population viability. The Minnesota population needs to be able to sustain some mortality and persist.”

Ability to Survive

The questions became more focused as the group zeroed in on what they think can be controlled to increase adult lynx survivorship. Unfortunately, lynx are not particularly skittish when it comes to people or cars. Unlike the bobcat that bolts when encountering a human, the lynx will often hang around a bit before meandering off.

Dividing forested areas into smaller fragments also brings humans and lynx closer together. The researchers agreed that land needs to be managed so that the cats have protected areas to move from Minnesota to Canada, and to hunt freely. But they would like to find out exactly how much land lynx actually need.

“We need to have sound ecological management of our lands so that lynx benefit along with everything else,” said Baker. “We can provide for many species, and in Minnesota, that makes a lot of sense.”

The Canada lynx research project is asking residents to call in any lynx sightings to 1-800-234-0054 or email lynx@nrri.umn.edu. Please note date, time, location and any interesting behavior observed. Photos from the public are also appreciated.

NRRI Canada lynx project

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