Rising Lynx Take Worries Advocates

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 5/12/05

Since 1999 state biologists have captured 126 different lynx, 84 of whom were kittens.
(Photo: Alan and Sandy Carey)

In 2004, a record nine Canada lynx were accidentally trapped in devices set for other animals, and one of the cats died after being released. State wildlife biologists aren't concerned, despite the status of the lynx as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). But lynx advocates are worried.

Among those disturbed about the rise in "incidental catch", which more than doubled in a year, are representatives of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine (WAM), Maine Audubon Society and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They point out that nine is the number of lynx reported caught to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W). There could be additional animals that have been caught and/or killed and not reported.

Maine's resident lynx population is small -- an estimated 200 to 500 animals -- and obviously at high risk, given their federal listing, advocates note. WAM's leader, Daryl DeJoy, says that IF&W should be taking action now to protect the lynx but believes the agency is dragging its feet because officials want to avoid upsetting the Maine trapping community. State wildlife overseers "have become the pawns of the hunting community" at the expense of threatened and endangered animals, he charges.

Jody Jones, biologist for Maine Audubon, observes, ". . . lynx are at risk of becoming extinct in Maine and the ESA clearly articulates the need to protect individual animals from harm or harassment." Maine Audubon, she says, wants "to work with all stakeholders to ensure lynx are adequately protected."

An opportunity for progress on lynx conservation will be the upcoming review of Maine's threatened and endangered species list. IF&W's wildlife division director Mark Stadler says the agency will consider the state status of lynx when it reviews and updates the list later this year.

DeJoy learned about the increase in incidental take of lynx through a Freedom of Information request. The agency confirmed on April 14 that since 2001, 15 calls have been received from fur trappers reporting the incidental capture of a lynx. One lynx was caught in 2001 and another one in 2002. In 2003, four lynx were trapped. In 2004, nine lynx were caught. All but one of the lynx were alive when released.

Eight of the nine lynx trapped last year were caught in foot-hold traps.

Eight of the nine lynx trapped last year were caught in foot-hold traps, the kind that state biologists use to catch lynx to put radio collars on them. One lynx was caught in a conibear trap, a device used to take coyote, raccoons and beaver by the foot or body. That lynx was caught by the foot, and IF&W assisted with the release. But the seven-months-old cat died several weeks later, according to Jennifer Vashon, IF&W's lynx and bear expert. The lynx that died is not counted in trapping mortality statistics. The cause of death, determined from a necropsy, was starvation. Whether the trapping caused the death or the lynx's poor condition is unknown, Vashon says.

There was other grim news in IF&W's report. A radio collar cut off a lynx that IF&W was tracking was found earlier this year on a logging road. FWS and IF&W agents are investigating, but it may never be known whether the lynx was shot, trapped or killed by a vehicle.

Six lynx have been reported struck and killed by vehicles since 2000, mainly on north woods logging roads, according to the IF&W report. That number is also on the rise. One lynx was hit in 2001; one in 2002; one in 2003; and three in 2004. These were not radio-collared lynx included in IF&W's on-going field study in the Clayton Lake area. Another lynx was killed by a vehicle in 2000 outside Portage on a boat launch road, and the driver notified the department. Vashon says that lynx disturbance or mortality from vehicles traveling roads is a major threat to the population.

There were no reports of a lynx taken by a hunter or in a coyote snare during 2001-2005. However, there was no snaring during the last two winters because WAM threatened to sue the state over incidental take of lynx, bald eagles and wolves in the snaring program. During 2002-03, IF&W conducted spot third-party checks of snarers and recorded no incidental take of lynx. However back in 1993, a lynx was killed in a snare and a bald eagle in the late 1980s.

WAM threatened to sue the state over incidental take of lynx, bald eagles and wolves.
(Photo: Earth Island)

IF&W has been keeping records of lynx take since 1975. (The term take is not limited to injury or death but also includes uninjured catch.) In the last 30 years, the take of 39 lynx have been documented. Three were taken by hounds, one in a share, 26 in traps, six by vehicle and three by unknown human-related methods.

Of the 39 lynx taken, 16 died: six by vehicles, one by snare, three by hounds; three by trappers and three by unknown methods. One of the 39 lynx had its leg broken in a foot trap and was sent to Tufts Veterinary School for treatment. The animal was released back in the north woods two months later and is doing well, according to Jennifer Vashon.

Twenty-three of the 39 deaths were radio-collared lynx. They died mostly from natural causes -- starvation, disease and predation. Two were taken as the result of unknown human activities.

Praising Trappers

Jennifer Vashon and IF&W's mammal group leader Wally Jacubas explain that they are not worried about the incidental catches because none of the lynx have died in the traps. (Lynx are relatively calm in leg-hold traps. Vashon said none of the lynx that have been caught in leg-hold traps for the study have been injured.)

Vashon and Jacubas praised trappers for reporting their incidental catches, following an effort by IF&W to educate trappers on how to avoid taking lynx, and assuring them they won't get into trouble if they report incidental catch. Vashon is especially pleased that one trapper tracked a lynx he caught to make sure it wasn't injured.

She thinks "it's a strong leap" to assume that other lynx have been trapped and/or killed and not reported by trappers, despite the recent cut collar case. "No one knows if there's a non-reported rate of [incidental take]," she says. There have been only two known illegal takes of lynx in the study program – the cat whose collar was cut off in 2005 and one in 1999.

Wally Jacubas is appreciative for "excellent cooperation by trappers" to report incidental catch. There's no reason to suspect they are covering up the taking of lynx, he says and as long as trappers continue to report, IF&W is not concerned. If many animals were being injured, "we might be concerned," Jacubas adds. IF&W thanks trappers who have released lynx with the gift of a wildlife art print.

Daryl DeJoy is a strong opponent of recreational trapping. IF&W's position is that it serves wildlife management needs. "I would reject that and ask for the science behind their statements," DeJoy says. "We need to consider whether a tiny minority's need to ‘recreationally' cause the fear and suffering they do with their traps is something that is acceptable in society today. Should we be so cavalier about trapping endangered and threatened species so that a few people can go about their recreation regardless of what federal laws say we need to do to protect these species?" he questions.

Referring to the "rewarding" of trappers for reporting incidental catch, DeJoy says, "This is the only way they can ensure some degree of accuracy in reporting. If the whole truth were known about what is being trapped, the reported take will decline, he contends. "This is what happened with coyote snaring, as well, in reference to incidental take."

Permitting Incidental Catch

IF&W is not worried about the incidental catches because none of the lynx have died in the traps.

Mark McCollough, endangered species biologist for FWS, says that incidental catch has been a concern of his agency since the lynx was listed as threatened in March, 2000. The ESA required FWS to issue a rule concerning critical habitat within one year of listing and that a recovery plan be initiated.

The ESA does not allow a taking of lynx except under special circumstances that involve a conservation plan. Section 4(d) of the act provides for limited incidental take of a threatened species after states have entered into a cooperative agreement with FWS. At the time of the listing, the states asked for protection from incidental take of lynx in trapping and snaring programs through a 4(d) rule.

A draft rule was written by FWS specifying the conditions where incidental take would be acceptable, McCollough recalls, but the proposed regulation was put on the backburner when Defenders of Wildlife and other plaintiffs sued the federal agency – first because the agency hadn't developed the required critical habitat rule and again later to try to get the lynx listed as endangered. If the federal judge in the case rules that the lynx must be listed as endangered, the states will no longer be eligible to have incidental take of lynx covered in the 4(d) rule.

Meanwhile in Maine, the saga of the lynx has taken "unique twists and turns," says McCollough. WAM threatened to sue IF&W, and the agency stopped the snaring program for the time being. Since a 4(d) rule wasn't available, IF&W pursued another means to allow incidental take in snares through the ESA's habitat conservation plan (HCP). IF&W's initial HCP drafts didn't pass muster with FWS, and the state is now working on revising the proposal to reduce the potential threats of snaring to lynx, eagles and wolves.

Interest groups have been kept out of the incidental take permit process so far. IF&W's Ken Elowe, head of the Bureau of Resource Management, says that involving the public now "in a scientific, biological assessment of risk and exploring logistical and policy options would not be productive." If FWS and the state can reach agreement on the issues and appropriate ways to address them, "then we'll have something to show," he says. "To date, we don't have a process or a product ready to show."

The Population Link

IF&W's Vashon, Jacubas and lynx study coordinator Shannon Crowley agree that the rise in incidental take is related to the increase in Maine's lynx population. "People are seeing lynx all over the place," Jacubas says. "If you drive a north woods road, you might see a couple of moose, a couple of coyotes but lynx are all over the place." Crowley says the three lynx killed this year by vehicles were the most ever IF&W has known about. "It's hard to tell if it's a trend or a flukey year," he says.

It wasn't that long ago that IF&W officials were denying that a resident lynx population existed in Maine, despite evidence to the contrary from former state game wardens and biologists who had seen their tracks for decades. In 1998, the department opposed efforts to include the lynx on the federal ESA on the basis of not having enough information about the animal. Then-IFW commissioner Lee Perry was adamant about Maine having no native lynx population – at the existing time or in the past. He complained that effort spent on listing issues was diverting the attention of his limited staff resources from the state's revenue-producing game species (deer, moose and bear). The major landowners lined up behind Perry and the department in opposing listing the lynx.

The health of the lynx population is parallel with that of the snowshoe hare, the lynx's chief prey.
(Photo: Alan and Sandy Carey)

Trackers working for IF&W (Jennifer and husband Adam Vashon) set out in the winter of 1999 to capture and collar a female lynx to see if she denned. The Vashons were successful in March, 1999, and then in June, they located her with two kittens. The finding set in motion a lynx study project to determine if and where there was a viable, self-sustaining population. IF&W concentrated its search in a four-township area in the Clayton Lake area where the most snow tracks had been seen. Since 1999 state biologists have captured 126 different lynx, 84 of whom were kittens. The young came from 30 dens located by radio telemetry.

Adult lynx continue to be successful and to produce new litters. In 2004, 21 kits were found in seven dens. (They captured an additional two kittens after the spring denning period.) Five of the dens were in the study area, and two were outside (in Westmanland and Township 8 Range 12). The lynx in Westmanland had a five-kitten litter, the largest for 2004. Four cats had five litters in 2003. Next month, biologists will go out for the sixth consecutive summer to look for the young of collared lynx. Six dens are currently under surveillance by air.

The health of the lynx population is parallel with that of the snowshoe hare, the lynx's chief prey. Rising numbers have sent researchers scurrying beyond the Clayton Lake study area to see how widespread resident lynx are. Last winter, trackers looked randomly in about 20 in the western mountains region. Lynx tracks were documented in one township (T1R13) close to Moosehead Lake, but there are many recent occurrences of lynx in many other townships surrounding the lake.

Jennifer Vashon says the random selection of towns may not be the most efficient way to detect lynx, and IF&W would like to return to the mountains and look for lynx in specific habitat that could support the animals. She expects that lynx are less common in the western mountains, but the track data suggests additional surveys are warranted.

IFW believes that lynx populations have increased in the study area since 1999 – a region heavily clearcut in the 1970s and 1980s. The regenerating forest has been providing the thick, brushy habitat in which snowshoe hare and the shy lynx thrive.

Recent research has provided strong evidence that showshoe hares do not go through the 10-year up-and-down cycle that occurs in the boreal north region and that hare are being maintained at consistently high levels by the post-clearcutting habitat.

As the regenerating forest grows into mature woods, Maine may lose much of the habitat currently supporting lynx, although there is a possibility that lynx-friendly habitat could be "created" to support a population.

Lynx population and habitat modeling at the University of Maine and by the non-profit Wildlands Project "convincingly demonstrates that Maine's lynx population is contiguous with lynx in New Brunswick and Gaspe, Quebec," FWS's McCollough says. Consequently, it's likely that the long-term persistence of lynx in Maine is dependent on the Gaspe and perhaps New Brunswick populations, he says.

Maine's resident lynx population is small -- an estimated 200 to 500 animals.

The Gaspe group is separated from those in interior Quebec by the St. Lawrence River, and apparently there is little interchange or dispersal between the groups, according to the research. The moxt extensive lynx habitat is in the Gaspe, north of Maine. Trapping and snaring of lynx in the Gaspe is 300 to 700 animals annually, McCollough says, suggesting a sizeable population.

Wildlands Project researcher Carlos Carroll has been modeling the effects of trapping, habitat changes, forestry and other land use changes on lynx in the Northeast. His analysis shows that lynx trapping can potentially dampen lynx recovery in Maine and New Brunswick, McCollough reports. Conversely, some animals from Maine may move into Quebec and be trapped or snared, he says. Last fall, an adult female lynx from the Clayton Lake region was snared in the interior of the Gaspe. McCollough says that FWS has been told by Quebec officials that a majority of lynx harvested in the Gaspe fur management districts are taken incidentally in snares during their coyote snaring season.

Mark McCollough believes that IF&W is "genuinely interested in lynx conservation", and FWS hopes that the state would list the lynx in the upcoming round of species being considered. With six years of study behind them, state biologists know everything they need to justify a listing, he says.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).