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Local Lynx Study
Making Progress

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
August 6, 1998

Arguably, the ultimate embarrassment for a hunter is to be caught tracking the quarry...Backwards!

It may not surprise the sarcastic among you to learn that researchers from the University of Montana and Rocky Mountain Research Center (Missoula) spent last winter doing just that. But, determining which way is "backwards" depends on where you want to go. If you want to learn about lynx in the Seeley-Swan, without influencing their movement patterns and behavior, then it's best to follow where they've been, instead of where they're going.

And, it helps to have lynx with radio collars.

John Squires is project biologist on a lynx study that began last winter between the crests of the Swans and the Missions. Working in cooperation with experienced local trappers, John and his crew captured and radioed 13 lynx last winter. He is radio-tracking these lynx year-round, obtaining locations for each radioed animal every two to three days.

Although challenging in any season, John's work in winter is made easier by the presence of snow for tracking. His standard technique is to follow a radio signal to within a few hundred feet of the study animal, stopping well short of disturbing or spooking the lynx. That way, the next day's radio location is not influenced by John's approach the day before. If he didn't avoid spooking the lynx, John's study would merely document the movement patterns of lynx when chased by John Squires, instead of the natural movement patterns of lynx in wild and human-influenced environments.

Once he has located a radioed lynx in winter, he finds its tracks and pulls out his GPS receiver to record their exact location on the surface of the earth. Then, he follows the tracks backwards to observe what the lynx was doing. In this manner, John can observe the types of habitats lynx select and avoid, and he can inspect evidence of kills and interactions with other animals. Every so often, he uses his GPS receiver to record locations for later computer mapping and analysis.

Without the presence of snow, at least most of the time, summer poses a more difficult situation for data collection. John still obtains frequent radio locations on his study animals, but backtracking isn't practical on dry ground.

Still, his work this summer has produced one especially noteworthy result. So far, several radioed lynx remain on winter ranges in the upper Clearwater drainage, dispelling the notion that lynx may not be year-round residents in the Seeley Lake vicinity.

This lynx research is important to help biologists understand why lynx are tied to northern latitudes, and do not occur very far south of Seeley Lake. While Montana may be "up north" to most people in the United States, it is at the southern fringe of lynx distribution in North America. Seeley Lake is where lynx go to get a tan.

Lynx in our area encounter a different environment than they encounter in Canada, and the fact that lynx do not make it much farther south suggests that they aren't very adaptable to change. By studying lynx at the edge of their range, it may be easier to detect the situations they respond well to, and those that they can't handle.

For example, lynx in northern latitudes are tied to the ten-year cycle of snowshoe hares. When there are a zillion hares, lynx increase to match their abundant food supply. And, when hare populations crash, lynx are soon to follow.

In our part of the world, hares are also thought to be a dietary mainstay for lynx. As such, hares are being studied in the Seeley Lake area in conjunction with the lynx research. But, Montana hares may not be subject to drastic population cycles, and Columbian ground squirrels add dietary diversity in the summer months. I think of these differences as minor timing adjustments in the engine of a lynx population, and they may make for smooth operation or sputtering performance. John's work will give us a glimpse.

Lynx in Montana encounter more competition from other predators, such as coyotes and lions, than in the far north of Canada. In fact, one of John's radioed female lynx was killed by a mountain lion this year. The lion did not feed on the lynx, but apparently "made an example of it," as one biologist put it. John's work will provide more insight over the years.

And, his insight will be welcome. Without a doubt, lynx are the most interesting neighbors that most of us will never see.

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