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Canada Lynx: The Ghost Cat of the North

Photo credit: Flickr user Keith Williams.

Of the four existing species in the genus Lynx, two live in North America. One is the bobcat; the other is its furry northern cousin, the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). The Canada lynx ranges across Canada and Alaska, with smaller populations extending into Montana, Maine, and several other states. Although the Canada lynx is usually larger than a bobcat, their ranges overlap and they sometimes interbreed. Their territories also overlap with mountain lions, but a mountain lion will kill a lynx.

Photo credit: Flickr user Eric Kilby.

A lynx may look huge to an observer because it is a wild predator, but it is not considered a "big cat." They are 19-24 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 18-24 pounds, making them about twice the size of a house cat. They are good swimmers, excellent at climbing trees, and can leap long distances, leaving conservationists looking far and wide for tracks in the snow.

Photo credit: Flickr user Jeremy McBride.

The Canada lynx is remarkable for its thick winter fur and its tremendously large feet and webbed toes. This cat can run across the top of thick snow as if it were wearing snowshoes, although with a much more graceful gait. Its primary winter prey is the snowshoe hare, and lynx populations rise and fall with the availability of hares.

Photo credit: James Weliver/USFWS via Flickr.

The State of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in 1999 to study Maine's lynx population. The diminishing number of lynx in Maine is thought to be due to climate change and the lack of adequate snow in recent decades. A team of wildlife biologists photographed a series of den visits in 2010, which you can see in this Flickr set.

Photo credit: Flickr user Angell Williams.

The U.S. Forest Service began tracking lynx populations in 1997. In Montana, lynx are trapped in cages, sedated, measured and sampled, and fitted with GPS collars before being freed.  

Photo credit: James Weliver/USFWS via Flickr.

A female lynx will give birth to a kindle of two to five kittens a year, depending on the abundance of prey. Kindles of up to eight kittens are possible, however. The snowshoe hare population rises and falls in a cycle that lasts around ten years. While other predators move on to other meals when the hares are scarce, the Canada lynx depends on them, and their numbers follow the same cycle as the hares – at least in Canada. In Montana, Wyoming, and other states, loss of habitat, illegal hunting, and unpredictable weather make survival harder for both hares and the lynx.

Image credit: Devineaux, et al, Journal of Wildlife Management, 2010.

The lynx was once common in Colorado, but was totally wiped out in the state by the 1970s. In 1999, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department introduced 96 lynx into the state. By 2002, the number had dropped to 34. Some had been shot, others hit by cars, and still others had starved. Subsequent relocations of Canada lynx fared better, with a total of 218 cats imported from Canada to Colorado. The first observed lynx kittens born to the reintroduced cats in Colorado were seen in 2003, and subsequent litters have been documented. The lynx in Colorado have learned to eat squirrels as a supplement to their rabbit diet. Although the actual number of lynx in Colorado is impossible to assess, the reintroduction program has been deemed a success. A motorist spotted these cats last weekend on Molas Pass between Silverton and Durango.  
 

Photo credit: Flickr user digitalART2.

In the United States, the Canada lynx is designated as a threatened species, except in Alaska. The population of Canada lynx is diminishing in Washington state because logging has restricted the size of forests, but a conservation group managed to set aside 25,000 acres of forest in 1999 for the estimated 150 cats in the state. In 1999 and 2000, a hair-trapping experiment failed to find any evidence of lynxes in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, although sporadic reports of sightings still come in. A program to reintroduce lynx to the Adirondack Mountains of New York between 1989 and 1992 failed when none of the 83 cats were able to be tracked successfully, and occasional reported sightings are considered to be bobcats. Lynx have been sighted in New Hampshire, but it is not known whether they came from Maine, New York, or Canada.   

Photo credit: Flickr user Jeremy McBride.

If you ever see a lynx, grab your camera quickly, as they prefer to stay hidden. Goodbye!

See also: 8 Obscure But Adorable Wildcat Species

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