In the northernmost reaches of Montana lives a rare and elusive creature: the Canada lynx. Ranging throughout Canada, Alaska and parts of the Northern Rockies, the lynx’s nickname, “Shadow of the Forest,” attests to the feline’s mysterious habits.
But the Crown of the Continent’s retreating glaciers could spell disaster for the lynx population and its ecosystem. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glacier National Park makes up a significant portion of the critical habitat for Canada lynx in Montana.
In 2000, the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and climate predictions show that lynx habitat will shrink substantially by the end of the century.
The Northern Rockies region is considered to have the best chance of population persistence in the U.S. Currently, few population estimates on the North American lynx exist, but scientists at Washington State University and Glacier National Park seek to fill the knowledge gap and shed light on the feline’s conservation status.
In the third and final year of conducting the Canada Lynx Occupancy in Glacier National Park study, Alissa Anderson, John Waller and Dan Thornton are surveying the carnivore with the hopes of providing population data to address environmental and conservation concerns.
In 2018, Waller, a GNP carnivore biologist, and Anderson, a graduate student at Washington State, approached Glacier National Park Conservancy with the idea to survey the population. Characterized by long, dense ruffs that resemble a double pointed beard, triangular ears with black tufts at the tips and broad, snowshoe-like paws, the Canadian lynx’s diet is almost exclusively snowshoe hare, which lives in abundance in the park.
During that year’s annual Backpackers Ball, the Conservancy, with the help of donors, raised over half of a million dollars for all three years of proposed research.
“Having this breadth of data will help the National Park Service manage wildlife,” said Doug Mitchell, executive director at the Conservancy. “It will allow us to understand the neighboring lynx population we have here in the park and help the park think about what other kinds of critters might be significant in the future.”
The final report is yet to be published, but the large-scale survey from the past two years has already provided park officials and scientists with a rich dataset. Using the park as their laboratory, researchers set up a camera-trap system during the summer season to track the feline species and better understand its ecosystem.
Requiring no lure or bait, the noninvasive camera-traps were placed on designated hiking trails across Glacier Park. Grid cells reaching 40 square kilometers were spread throughout the park, and within each cell four separate cameras were spaced at least 1 kilometer apart at knee height.
At the start of each field season, researchers attach cameras to trees in May and then retrieve them at the end of the season in September. During the summer, researchers visit the camera once to check functionality and switch out SD cards.
These past two years, researchers have detected lynx at least once at 105 out of 293 camera sites. During the 2019 field season, 114 lynx were detected at 31 of the 134 individual camera-traps throughout West Glacier, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Belly River, and Walton areas.
Last summer, researchers identified individual lynx in new park locations and re-sampled areas with high lynx detection. Camera-traps collected 833,223 images from 174 cameras at 127 unique locations, including Kintla, Lake McDonald, Loop, Cut Bank, and Two Medicine areas.
Despite the potential challenges the pandemic might have posed last summer, researchers used park closures to their advantage and examined how human presence may impact wildlife. Off-limit areas like Belly River, Many Glacier and St. Mary were re-sampled.
Data collected during the 2020 recreation closures from locations on the east side of the park presented increased activity for most species, including lynx, from 114 to 404 detections. The first ever raccoons in the park were also detected in the North Fork and Lake McDonald, while porcupine detections increased by 16% across the park.
Record high visitation rates this summer season will present a unique pool of data different from the previous two years.
Camera-traps in the Upper Kintla Lake, Logging Lake, Dutch Creek and Goat Haunt areas will monitor lynx occupancy during the final field season. Researchers are also doubling their sample size of sites by re-surveying 20 separate sites throughout Two Medicine and Cut Bank.
After camera-traps from the 2021 field season are collected, researchers’ next steps will be to create detection histories for the lynx and pursue density estimates.
While population estimates are not yet determined, Anderson said present detections indicate the lynx’s preferred habitat and climate within the park. Previously burned areas like the North Fork that has post-burns from the Red Bench Fire 30 years ago are considered lynx’s prime habitat.
Projects like the Canada lynx study provide a basis for environmental action and encourage the community to repair the park’s ecosystem, Mitchell said. For Mitchell, the payoff of the lynx study will be up to the community to make or stop changes from happening so that all species in the park are protected.
“It’s our job to use science to preserve Glacier National Park,” Mitchell said.
Understanding the park as an important habitat and a corridor of connectivity for lynx in the face of climate change can inform change-making decisions now and further down the road.
“The importance of doing research like this on a regular basis helps us steer away from conflict and toward a shared vision of what the future might look like, a future that doesn’t have to be handled in a crisis mode,” Mitchell said.
Anderson and the team’s success with the current lynx study may open up opportunities for similar projects in the future. At this year’s annual Backpackers Ball, the Conservancy is fundraising for a wolverine study in 2022 proposed by Waller.
“The park has a rich tradition of keeping its ecosystem intact. Helping the park acquire tools to protect the wildlife through private philanthropy is an incredible opportunity,” Mitchell said.
To support to the Glacier National Park Conservancy and similar projects, visit glacier.org.