An Agate Original
All Canada lynx in the Lower 48—collectively described as a Distinct Population Segment, or DPS, that excludes lynx in Alaska—are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. To the surprise of many, in November of 2017, two months ahead of the expected court-ordered completion of a recovery plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instead concluded a 5-year Review with a recommendation for de-listing. If this recommendation survives the required rule-making process, Minnesota’s lynx and those throughout the contiguous U.S. will lose the federal protections now afforded them as a threatened species under the Act. The public will have opportunity to comment on the proposed change.
There ought to be a word for a wild animal exquisitely suited to its environment. It would convey elements of both perfection and vulnerability. We’d use it for butterflies that rely on native prairie. We’d use it for Canada lynx at the southern edge of their range.
Canada lynx fairly float across the surface of deep, powdery snow, their long-limbed bodies buoyed by large, lushly-furred feet. In the winter conditions that characterize most of their range, these natural “snowshoes” offer efficiency of movement and are considered to give lynx a seasonal competitive edge over other mid-level predators of snowshoe hares, namely bobcat and coyote. “Lynx feet are actually similar in size to those of wolves, although their weight (in Minnesota, 16– 35 lbs.) may be less than a third of a wolf’s weight,” says wildlife biologist Sarah Malick-Wahls.
Malick-Wahls works for the U.S. Forest Service based out of the Kawishiwi Ranger District in Ely, MN. She’s among the researchers involved in a long-term survey and monitoring effort to document lynx occurrence, persistence and reproduction in the Superior National Forest. The Forest is part of an 8,069 square-mile region in northeastern Minnesota defined as Critical Habitat for lynx in the Lower 48, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Most field work is done in winter, when researchers follow lynx tracks in snow to collect genetic samples (usually scat, but also hair and tissue). Samples are sent to the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station’s National Genomics Laboratory for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula, MT. There, they undergo DNA analysis to determine individual identification, sex, and hybridization of lynx with bobcats. The database created for this purpose now contains over 1600 genetic samples with a total of 330 unique genotypes—that is, individual lynx—identified during the period January 2002- October 2017.
A recent report by Tim Catton, Dan Ryan and Dave Grosshuesch offers a summary of findings from this DNA database. In the most recent 2016-2017 monitoring season, for example, the authors report collection of 144 samples, 130 of which were identified as lynx, with genotypes identifying 42 unique individuals: 24 females, 17 males and 1 of indeterminable sex. Of these, 23 had previously been recorded in the database. DNA analysis confirmed 6 family groups in the survey area.
Earlier research on the species in northeastern Minnesota included work by Dave Mech in the early 1970s and—more recently—a long-term study led by Ron Moen at the Natural Resources Research Institute. Moen’s 2008 report discussed findings from 6 years of field research that involved live-trapping, radiocollaring and tracking of lynx using radiotelemetry.
Together, the studies have generated many insights. As the Moen report relates, “Our results generally support the presence of a resident population of Canada lynx in Minnesota during the 1900s, and generally reject the hypothesis that lynx are in northeastern Minnesota only because of periodic “invasions” from Ontario.” Snowshoe hares have long been understood to be lynx’ primary food source, and drops in hare populations in neighboring Canada are known to bring more lynx across the border into Minnesota. But, according to Malick-Wahls, the pronounced 10-year boom/bust cycle in snowshoe hare populations that students of ecology will remember from their textbooks doesn’t seem to be occurring in Minnesota. “There was a big peak in snowshoe hare populations in the late 70s, but since that time the population has been exhibiting either a dampened cycle or is not cycling. So, we think the lynx populations are not cycling, either.”
Researchers have also refined ideas about habitat. “In Minnesota,” says Malick-Wahls, “we feel that regenerating forest up to about 15 years of age is good habitat for hare and lynx foraging: primarily conifer, including lowland conifer (black spruce/tamarack) as well as upland. Also, old growth with a significant brushy understory, with canopy gaps. Blow-downs can be good for lynx, since they sometimes use root-wads from wind-thrown trees for denning.” The science on the species is still evolving: it wasn’t until 2002 that field observations combined with DNA analysis confirmed lynx reproduction in the state.
Of course, DNA-based evidence of 330 individual lynx collected from the Superior National Forest over a period of some 15 years doesn’t tell us how many lynx are here now. So, what is the size of the state’s lynx population?
“We don’t know,” says Malick-Wahls, “although we are currently developing a population estimate for the core area where we spend most of our sampling effort so that we will have a baseline by which to measure future changes.”
In fact, there is a high degree of uncertainty about the numbers of lynx—currently or historically—not only in Minnesota but throughout the species’ range in the Lower 48.
The basic question of how many Canada lynx are in the Lower 48 would seem fundamental to figuring out whether they are at risk. But despite a lack of firm numbers—or even reliable estimates—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now set on a path to remove the lynx from the Endangered Species list. In November of 2017 the Service concluded a 5-year Review with a recommendation to delist, signed by Lead Regional Director Noreen Walsh.
The Canada lynx Species Status Assessment (SSA) that formed the basis of the review is clear about its lack of clarity on the numbers of lynx:
“…(W)e lack reliable estimates of the sizes and trends of lynx populations in the DPS (distinct population segment) and existing demographic data are inadequate to construct empirical models to project population sizes, trends, and viability into the future. …”
If reliable estimates of the sizes and trends of lynx populations are lacking, why then does the Service list “recovery” as its reason for recommending de-listing? Agate put the question to Jim Zelenak. Zelenak is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Montana Ecological Services Office based in Helena. He led the core team that prepared the Lynx Species Status Assessment. Speaking in an April phone interview, he frames up the issues as he sees them, and the rationale behind the USFWS recommendation to de-list the Canada lynx DPS in the Lower 48.
Zelenak points to the basis for the 2000 listing of the lynx DPS as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. “There was some really important science that came out right about the time we were listing the DPS that made us begin to question the hypothesis that there had been major population declines and range contractions. Ultimately, we listed the lynx DPS primarily under factor D of the Act, which is the inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms to ensure conservation. At the time, it was thought that most lynx in the lower 48 were in the west, and were on federal lands that did not have specific conservation measures in place for lynx.”
Since that time, says Zelenak, the review determined that “all of the national forests that have lynx have either formally amended their forest plans to adopt science-based conservation measures for lynx or were working under signed agreements to implement standards that would ensure protections in known and suspected lynx habitats.”
These measures, as stated in the 5-year review, have “substantially addressed the conservation of lynx habitats and populations and snowshoe hare habitat.” In Zelenak’s words, they have “filled the regulatory void for which the species was listed.” Recovery, in this sense, is not about numbers of lynx, historically or now. “In this case it is looking at the extent to which the threat for which the DPS was listed has been addressed, and then looking at whether or not there are new or novel threats that either indicate that it would remain listed as threatened, or upgrade to endangered, or whether it no longer warrants protection under the Act.”
Among the unknowns is the extent to which the regulatory measures put into place on federal lands in the interest of lynx conservation would persist or be enforced if the species were to be de-listed, and whether efforts to enforce them would hold up to legal challenges. Further, these measures do not offer assurances regarding management of lynx habitat outside of federal lands.
Also unknown is how states in the affected portion of the lynx range would respond to de-listing, including the potential for establishment of trapping seasons. The Endangered Species Act prohibits “take” of the species in the Lower 48 without special exemption, with take defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct” of a federally listed species. Since 2001, in Minnesota, despite the federal protections in place, there have been 7 reported incidents of lynx shooting (all mortalities) and 34 trapped (17 mortalities and 17 released alive), most taken by accident when targeting another species. Since these figures rely in part on self-reporting, actual take may be greater.
Zelenak acknowledges that there are unknowns, but asserts that post de-listing monitoring would allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “keep (its) fingers on the pulse of the condition of the DPS.”
The Species Status Assessment looked at a host of factors that could represent population-level stressors, including timber harvest, vegetation management, habitat loss and fragmentation, wildland fire management, disease and predation, trapping and climate change. For a species like lynx, dependent on snowshoe hares and well-adapted for boreal forests and deep, powdery snow, climate change could mean that the southern portion of the lynx range—including the 2% of the species’ range in the lower 48—may one day cease to offer good habitat.
While the review professes uncertainty regarding the timing, rate and extent of habitat decline due to projected climate-warming, it is stated more as a matter of when than if: “We expect lynx populations in each geographic unit to become smaller and more patchily distributed in the future (2050 and beyond) due largely to projected climate-driven losses in habitat quality and quantity and related factors.”
At the heart of any assessment for de-listing is to ask whether the species meets the definition of “threatened” under the Act. An endangered species is one “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” while a threatened species is one “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” The time frame for the foreseeable future is set on a case-by-case basis.
Given the acknowledged lack of reliable information on the sizes of lynx populations in the DPS, this process largely relied on expert opinion, as represented by a 10-member panel of recognized lynx experts (see p. ii, SSA). Panel members were asked for their opinion regarding the likelihood that individual geographic units will continue to support resident lynx populations in the future, expressed as “% probability of persistence” in the years 2025, 2050 and 2100. Since the experts consulted expressed low confidence in predicting the likely conditions of DPS populations on the longer time horizon, the year 2050 was designed as the outer limit of “the foreseeable future.”
Regarding Unit 2, northeastern Minnesota, individual expert projections on the probability of lynx persistence in the year 2050 ranged from 60-90%. Their projections for the year 2100 (even considering their low confidence in projecting that far out) are sobering, with individual lynx experts estimating the probability of lynx persistence in the state in 2100 at 10 to 60%. At least one recognized lynx expert felt that there was a 10% chance of lynx persisting in the state by the year 2100.
Says Zelenak, “What we heard from this expert panel and from experts convened in an elicitation workshop and from independent peer reviewers of the Lynx Species Status Assessment is that we really need to be clear about the uncertainty—it’s informed opinion, but it’s not the same as empirical data subjected to statistical analysis.” The standard for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reminds Zelenak, is to bring the “best available information” to bear on its assessments of species.
The Species Status Assessment on which the 5-year report is based cites over 700 documents, including published research by the experts asked to offer opinion on lynx probability of persistence over time. What is known about lynx and their habitat in the lower 48 appears to have been well represented by the heads at the table. That said, the question remains whether what is presently known about lynx is sufficient to guide decisions that will ensure their conservation, or to justify de-listing.
Consider the logic of statements like this, from the Species Status Assessment, in which the absence of reliable information to the contrary is used to suggest resiliency:
“Overall, the apparent long-term (historical and current) persistence of resident lynx populations in at least 4 of the 6 geographic units (Units 1-4), and the absence of reliable information indicating that the current distribution and relative abundance of resident lynx are substantially reduced from historical conditions, suggest historical and recent resiliency of lynx populations in the DPS.”
Is there reliable information that the population—in Minnesota, for example—is not declining or is stable? Says Zelenak, “Because we lack reliable information on historical numbers of resident lynx in Minnesota and even now we lack a statistically robust estimate of the current population size—we essentially have Ron Moen’s best professional guess of 50-200 resident lynx based on his research there—it is impossible to say with certainty that the population has not declined and/or is currently stable.”
In these times, such admission of the limits of knowledge is refreshing, to the extent that gaps can be filled. Less so if they are not. Despite the challenges inherent in field research on lynx, presumably if more resources were devoted to the task, there would be more reliable data on the size and distribution of resident lynx populations in the Lower 48. We might not be so quick to say “mission accomplished,” and recovery could be measured in the traditional sense: by the number of animals on the land.
What happens next? The administrative steps to be taken by the USFWS are dictated under the law by the Endangered Species Act. A recommendation for de-listing does not automatically lead to de-listing. A key hinge point in the process will be the notice of the proposed rule change in the Federal Register, which kicks off a public comment period. According to Zelenak, on the USFWS national calendar, the USFWS is currently projecting it will complete the proposed rule change in fiscal year 2019 (which runs from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019). A final rule on de-listing, should it occur, would come in the following fiscal year. He notes that this timeline is subject to change. “When the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, it will be posted at Regulations.gov. where folks will be able to download the document for review and submit comments on the proposed rule. The final rule would also be posted there, as would any announcements regarding public hearings on the proposed rule. We will also make the rules available on our USFWS Region 6 lynx webpage and each would likely have an associated news release.” For now, the Canada lynx remains a threatened species throughout the contiguous U.S., afforded all protections granted by this status under the Endangered Species Act.
According to Sarah Malick-Wahls, it’s possible that, even if de-listed, the lynx may still be considered a sensitive species in the management framework of the Superior National Forest. If that were the case, wildlife biologists on the forest would likely still be called upon to evaluate potential implications of resource management decisions on the species and its habitat. In Minnesota, Canada lynx are listed at the state level as a Special Concern species.
Meanwhile, as this process plays out, the lynx will live their lives, as poet Wendell Berry said of all wild things, “untaxed by the forethought of grief.” As March turns to April and April to May, lynx mating will occur in the Superior National Forest, females will gradually distance themselves from their kittens of the previous year, and a new season’s kittens will be born.
Come next winter, Sarah Malick-Wahls will again collect genetic material for the DNA database to serve as evidence of their occurrence here. First in mukluks, later in snowshoes, she will watch for their familiar, roundish “ice-cream cone” shaped tracks as large as 5½” long by 4” wide; the regularly spaced, zig-zag walking pattern; their delicate passage through even tangled woodlands, walking the length of fallen logs like a tight-rope. She’ll follow the shallow tracks in snow, moving opposite their direction of travel to avoid encountering a lynx and altering their behavior. She will laugh as her snowshoes sink in the deep powder and snow inevitably falls down on her from the branches above, admiring the lynx for how easily it had moved through the same small spaces in the underbrush, disturbing so little.
Agate wishes to thank Tofte photographer Thomas Spence, for granting permission to use his amazing lynx photographs in this story. In February 2017 while walking a forest road, Spence had a rare encounter with 5 Canada lynx, believed to be an adult female with her 4 kittens of the previous spring. Says Spence “Most mornings I am out early either on the lake shore or in the woods looking for critters or scenes to photograph. Mornings are my favorite and I am usually out before sunrise. This particular morning, I was out in the woods in search of moose, my favorite subject to photograph. I stopped for what I thought was a single, lone cat. After a minute or so, another appeared from the woods, then another, and another. They all gathered together in the road in a group.” As he writes on his website, “We don’t often see the Canada lynx in our woods, so we tend to cherish the brief glimpses we get.” Find more of his photos of lynx and other northwoods scenes at www.thomasjspenceimages.com
Thank you also, to Sarah Malick-Wahls and Jim Zelenak for consenting to interviews for this story.