Of lynx and fire

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | February 26, 2020 7:30 AM

It didn’t take long for biologists to discern which animals left behind the first few sets of snowy tracks.

One was a group of wolves that appeared to trail behind one another single-file until they spoked off from one another near a river’s edge. The second was a wolverine whose gait left behind an obvious weasel-like impression in the snow.

But the third and fourth sets, those of Canada lynx, weren’t so obvious upon first glance.

Biologists stepped off their snowmobiles to take a closer look and used a tape measure to determine the animal’s walking steps at about 32 inches — a sure sign among others the impressions were created by a lynx.

“When you think about how only 40 or so of these animals exist in the Southwestern Crown, the fact that we are even able to come across these tracks is really remarkable,” said Luke Lamar, a wildlife biologist with Swan Valley Connections.

And while everyone on the team that day agreed that witnessing the actual animal would be remarkable, spotting one of Montana’s most elusive animals in the flesh is not what they had set out to find. The research crew is in the midst of its third and final year of monitoring how lynx and other carnivores move across landscapes that have experienced wildfires — a task they are able to accomplish, sans cat.

Specifically, Lamar is one of a handful who have spent the last few winters immersed in landscapes across Northwest Montana where wildfires swept through in 2017. These include the Rice Ridge and Liberty fires that collectively consumed more than 140,000 acres of prime lynx habitat near the Seeley Lake area that year.

“These areas are some of the best lynx habitat that we had in the state before those fires occurred,” Lamar said. “There is no scientific data on how wildfires affect lynx. So the idea is to document their habitat use in these areas.”

Lamar and others are compiling fine-scale data on how lynx maneuver these fire-disturbed areas shortly after their preferred dense understory is eliminated. The thick vegetation tends to attract the snowshoe hare, which accounts for more than 90% of a lynx’s diet. As a different but related arm of this year’s monitoring efforts, which runs from January through March, groups have started looking closely at populations of snowshoe hare in general and how they also have reacted to fires.

For these projects, crews have mostly confined their monitoring to the Yaak and the Southwestern Crown of the Continent. The crown area, in particular, is the rare cat’s southernmost range, making it a vital landscape for research.

THERE ARE several primary reasons for wanting to compile a scientific dataset on how the animals maneuver fire-disturbed areas.

One of these stems from a noticeable uptick in severe fire seasons that Montana has experienced in more recent years. The lynx is currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and many stakeholders are concerned about how the snow-dependent cats will adapt to fires in their territories.

“There’s little doubt that our climate is exacerbating the size and frequency of these fires,” said John Squires, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula. “So as we get more fire impact on landscapes, these non-burned areas become increasingly important to the conservation of more fragile wildlife like the lynx.”

Squires, who is leading the three-year collaborative project between the research station and Swan Valley Connections, says the project also aims to provide insight on how agencies can best-manage the forests in multi-use areas that haven’t seen fire.

Although the forests are home to lynx and other rare carnivores such as wolverine, these areas also experience a fair amount of logging activity and other human-related forest management techniques. For example, Lamar and his longtime Swan Valley Connections colleague, Mike Mayernik, mainly monitor lynx and other species in the Seeley Lake area, which has a rich logging history.

“We aren’t trying to create any sort of issues for salvage logging and we recognize communities like these depend on forest products,” Lamar said. “What we are doing with this analysis is giving forest management experts information they can use when making decisions on how to maintain these multi-use lands.”

While the primary entities on the three-year monitoring project are the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and Swan Valley Connections, other partners representing forest and conservations entities have come to the table over the last few years. These include The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and others.

“We want to be good stewards of this land and that includes understanding how animals like lynx live and operate on lands that have seen wildfire or logging or other activities,” said Steve Kloetzel, Western Montana land steward for the Montana Nature Conservancy. “We like to support these types of research projects whenever we are able.”

GATHERING, ANALYZING and compiling the three years of data on an incredibly rare animal is no small feat and at times, people underestimate the resources it takes to complete these studies — hence the importance of partnerships.

“An overarching story here is how synergistic these partnerships are,” said Scott Tomson, a wildlife biologist with the Seeley Lake Ranger District. “Looking at this wildfire project alone, countless people have been involved.”

Although spearheaded by Squires, much of the work begins in the field where Swan Valley Connections staff work to spot, identify and back-track lynx tracks in deep swaths of snow. They plot where the animal roamed, what kind of vegetation was present, if snowshoe hare were in the vicinity, check for hair and scat samples and more. While much of their work is done by snowmobile and snowshoe, they and Squires also work with bait traps, GPS collars and other non-invasive methods.

The scat is then sent to one of the genetics laboratories at the Rocky Mountain Research Station where, for the last two decades, technicians have pushed the envelope of what can be done with animal DNA.

Researchers are able to analyze a DNA sample and pinpoint what individual lynx the sample came from. The work has allowed biologists to maintain an ongoing database of subjects such as “M147” and “M080” — the “names” of specific lynx they have come across.

“So we can send these samples and within days they can tell us if this is a new cat or not and from there we can see whether they have occupied certain areas,” Lamar said.

According to Kristy Pilgrim, lab supervisor at the station, lab technicians are constantly pushing the boundaries with genetics testing. Most recently, Pilgrim said employees have experimented with detecting evidence of species in snow as opposed to using more obvious samples like hair.

“We wondered if our testing processes could pick up on really subtle details after the snow melted,” Pilgrim said. “We have definitely gotten back impressive results. It’s fascinating that someone can scoop up snow, send it to us, and we can tell them if an animal has been there.”

According to Squires, once this year’s monitoring efforts are complete, analyzing and writing the three-year report on lynx and wildfires will unfold quickly. The goal is to finalize the study before the 2020 fire season begins.