Reclusive and threatened lynx may gain federal protection
Activities in lynx habitat in central and northern Idaho would be
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
One of natures most introverted creatures could soon generate
extroverted behavior from the Northwests recreation and logging communities. Both
activities could be more strictly managed if a certain North American wildcat is placed on
the endangered species list.
The lynxa reclusive, long-legged, gargantuan-pawed cat that
regularly preys on snowshoe haremay be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
as a threatened species on Jan. 8. If its not formally listed, it will probably be
managed as if it were, acknowledged Sawtooth National Forest endangered species biologist
"Whether its listed or not, how it will be managed is pretty
much set," Bumpus said in an interview at her office last week.
Under direction from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicethe agency
responsible for ESA listingsgovernment and private scientists drafted a conservation
plan for the lynx that was released to land and wildlife managers this month.
The plan calls for backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, logging and road
and trail building to be curbed in areas believed to be lynx habitat. That includes areas
in most of central and northern Idaho, including the Sawtooth National Forest and the
Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Washington, Montana and portions of Maine are
also home to lynx. The cats abound in Canada and Alaska, though ESA listing would only
affect management of the species in the U.S.
The ESA protects animals and plant species in danger of extinction and
those that may become endangered in the foreseeable future. The act requires agencies to
ensure that activities do not harm the continued existence of the listed species.
Bumpus said the Sawtooth National Forest is still waiting for the
wildlife services final decision on listing before releasing determinations on how
winter recreation management would be revised locally.
Implementation of such strategies would not go into effect until at
least six months after a declaration is made. The Sawtooth National Forest has a very
modest logging program and wouldnt be considerably affected on that front.
Both winter backcountry travel and logging are marked because of the
effects they have on snowshoe hare numbers. Historically, lynx populationsmonitored
by trapping recordshave mirrored those of snowshoe hare, which are currently low.
Snowshoe hare populations typically peak and decline in 10- to 11-year
cycles, and the animals last peaked around 1988, Bumpus said, meaning that the existing
low numbers reflect this cycle.
The problems with backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, Bumpus
explained, are that they pack snow, allowing animals such as coyotes and foxes to enter
lynx habitat to compete for the same rabbit-based prey base.
"A coyote can out-compete a lynx, and coyotes normally dont
travel. They stay in the valleys," Bumpus said.
Lynx usually hide out in high-mountain, wooded areas. Their large,
snowshoe-like feet enable them to walk on the snow, rather than through it, a distinct
advantage over the cats competitors.
"With these magnificent paws, the lynx floats on snow that has
wolves and foxes floundering up to their chests," wrote Jerry Kobalenko in his book, Forest
Cats of North America. "Its feet are almost as big as a wolfs, yet this
fine-boned cat weighs only one-quarter as much."
Logging operations could be affected because limitations would be posed
on cutting forests that are five to 50 years old, the snowshoe hares optimum
habitat. Logging operations typically thin young forests to facilitate a faster turnaround
of mature trees, a process called pre-commercial cutting.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ray Vizgirdas said logging
determinations would probably be made on a case-by-case basis, however.
Despite efforts to protect the elusive lynx, very little is known about
its health as a species in the United States. Bumpus said she is aware of the conflicts
ESA listing could spark in light of the lack of scientific knowledge and the recreational
and economic impacts it could have.
"This is one of the most difficult listings Ive been
involved in," she said. "Theres never been so much shoulder shrugging and
I dont knows than with this species. No bodys got any information
on them. The (conservation plan) is probably better than a listing at this point."
Jim Beers, federal programs coordinator for the National Trappers
Association, Inc. and a former wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
said he strongly opposes lynx listing.
In a telephone conversation last week, he charged that the wildlife
service stands to gain more federal grant money, personnel and a larger allocated budget
if another species is listed.
Vizgirdas said, however, that the agencys budget is not generally
increased when new species are listed.
"It usually puts us in more of a bind," he said.
Beers, who said that hes opposed to the ESA in general, declared:
"This attitude of listing species without a thorough scientific
review and against the wishes of the state fish and game agencies is indicative of why
there is so much opposition to the Endangered Species Act.
"Lynx in the lower 48 are not remnants of former abundance but
rather cyclic animals that have never been very abundant in the contiguous U.S."
Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Mike Todd said he is also
concerned about the implications a lynx listing could have.
"Being listed as threatened or endangered changes the complexion
of things a whole lot. Its no longer business as usual, is what Im trying to
say here," he said. "This is something that is going to have some significant
Though the number of lynx in Idaho is not accurately known, Forest
Cats author Kobalenko points out that the future for all of North Americas
wildcats is quite uncertain.
"These days, most of us wish them well, and thats been a
But even as the sounds of gunfire and the snap of leg-hold traps
become fainter, the roar of the bulldozers grows louder. For top predators like cats, it
may signal the final battle.
"You can legislate hunting and trapping with the stroke of a pen,
but theres no easy answer to loss of wilderness."