by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
January 21, 1999
Biologists studying lynx in the Clearwater Valley during the past year have obtained the largest sampling of collared lynx ever documented in Montana, according to Jay Kolbe, wildlife biologist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula.
Kolbe talked about the local study at the January AARP meeting (American Association of Retired Persons) in Condon.
Kolbe and his associate, Scott Tomson, have so far trapped, measured and collared 14 lynx here in an effort to learn more about lynx populations, behavior and habitat needs. The study includes the Beaver Creek drainage north of Seeley Lake, and the entire valley south to Clearwater Junction, the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range and Gold Creek.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the lynx as an endangered species sometime this year. If the lynx is listed, Kolbe explained that "every land management decision that will affect lynx" will have to take into account lynx behavior and habitat needs.
Although the lynx have been studied extensively in the Far North and Canada, relatively little is known about how this reclusive animal behaves south of the Canadian border. Kolbe noted that in the Swan Valley, for example, local outdoorsmen and trappers believe that lynx have suffered a large decline in recent years, but the reason for the decline remains a mystery.
"I'd like to be able to tell you about what the lynx are doing up here, but I can't yet. Maybe in two or three years," Kolbe said. The Seeley Lake area lynx study began in December, 1997, and data collection will continue through two more winters.
Genetically, the lynx is closely related to the bobcat. However, the two animals differ considerably in appearance and behavior. The lynx is known for its long legs, large feet, and noticeable ear tufts, which are often more than two-inches long. The lynx is well-adapted to high-country travel in winter. Its furry feet act like snowshoes, and the cat "floats" across deep snow where other predators, like bobcats and coyotes, flounder. Lynx are also quiet compared to bobcats.
"It's such a bittersweet thing to have a lynx in a trap," Kolbe said, referring to the animals' calm disposition. "Hopefully, in the future, we won't have to collar them to study them," he said, citing improvements in radio and DNA research methods.
The study has been rewarding for Kolbe, who enjoys checking traps daily, following lynx tracks through the snow, and recording the movements of collared animals. One day he was able to observe a female cat feeding a snowshoe hare to her kittens. "It was neat. Really neat," he said, adding, "You've got cool neighbors up here."
Other interesting behavior that has been observed includes mountain lion predation on lynx. Two young lynx in the study area were killed by the larger cats. Kolbe noted that the lions didn't feed on the lynx carcasses.
Lynx are territorial, like other predators, and sometimes range over large areas. Several lynx in the Seeley Lake study area have been been observed traveling great distances. One young male, possibly trying to establish his own territory, was tracked from Kozy Korner northeast into the Bob Marshall Wilderness (Danaher Basin), then south to Ovando at Brown's Lake.
"It's amazing that they can keep up that kind of pace. Just that they can pull it off, killing a hare every other day, and live," Kolbe said.
The biologists working on the lynx study live in Seeley Lake and operate out of a field office at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station.