Some areas of the Great Lakes are again home to an elusive wild cat. Canada Lynx disappeared from the region about twenty years ago. Now, considered threatened, lynx are turning up in the Superior National Forest for the first time in decades. Biologists are trying to figure out why they’ve come back, and whether they’ll stay. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher reports:
Some areas of the Great Lakes are again home to an elusive wild cat. Canada Lynx disappeared
from Minnesota about twenty years ago. Now, considered threatened lynx are turning up in the
Superior National Forest for the first time in decades. Biologists are trying to figure out why
they’ve come back, and whether they’ll stay. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Kelleher
Lynx have tufted ears, a stubby tail, and big snowshoe feet. They’re a northern forest cat,
about the size of a cocker spaniel. Lynx range across much of Canada and Alaska, but
historically they were found in the Great Lakes region as well. Lynx are loners and range a huge
territory. They seem to follow their favorite prey, snowshoe hare, and recently, Minnesota’s
Superior National Forest has been jumping with hares.
“It doesn’t matter where snowshoe hares are. If they’re there, that’s where cats are going to be.”
University of Minnesota Researcher, Chris Burdette, has one possible explanation for the return
of Canada Lynx.
“There’s a lot of snowshoe hares in this part of the area, and up to 90% of a lynx’s diet is
Hare populations boom and bust in about seven-year cycles. But in recent population booms, the
lynx were missing. By the mid-1990s, lynx were considered gone from Minnesota, until now.
Three years ago, the cats were spotted again in the region.
Burdette has just begun to count and track northeast Minnesota’s lynx. Two cats have been fitted
with radio collars. It’s not yet clear how many others are wandering the forest. And Burdette
says, lynx do wander.
“It’s very likely that the majority of these animals migrated from Canada. These animals innately
want to disperse long distances.”
Burdette was checking his traps recently, marching through dense balsam fir and the last
remnants of spring snow.
(walking through snow)
His lynx traps are chicken wire boxes, the size of a big dog house, with a bit of hare or beaver in
the back and a door on the front poised to slap shut. But on this day, there were no lynx to be
“It seems like it’s been in there. We cover it up with some balsam, spruce, pine
boughs – whatever we have to sort of make it look more natural. So this one looks clear.”
Lynx were added to the list of threatened species three years ago. An environmental group sued
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, saying the agency’s recovery plans overlooked lynx
populations in the Western Great Lakes, Maine and the Southern Rockies.
Mike Leahy, Counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, says it’s clear there are lynx in the Great Lakes
“The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had for a long time vehemently denied that
there could possibly be more than one or two lynx in the entire state, and, they found indeed,
there’s a resident population of lynx in Minnesota.”
Lynx aren’t entirely welcomed. Some residents worry that rules protecting the threatened species
might stop timber sales, or close roads and recreation trails. They remember the Pacific
Northwest, where logging was stopped for spotted owls. But that won’t happen for lynx,
according to Superior National Forest Biologist, Ed Lindquist.
“It’s certainly not a four-legged spotted owl. It really likes regenerating forest – dense
regenerating forest – that provides good snowshoe hare habitat.”
And regenerating forest is what you get after harvesting timber. New aspen growth attracts hares.
Lynx also need older growth nearby for shelter.
Chris Burdette’s study will help create a lynx recovery plan. But he says recovery – actually
getting the cat off federal protection – isn’t even on the horizon.
“No where near it. Very preliminary stages. We’re just in the data collection stage right now, so we
can put some kind of scientific thoughts into the process of managing this species.
There’s little known about the elusive cat or it’s prey. Understanding snowshoe hares will help
researchers understand the lynx.
“Are they going to be here in three years? Are they going to be here in five years, or whatever?
That’s a very open question.”
Burdette will trap lynx until bears begin raiding the bait in his box traps. Then he’ll radio track
collared lynx and monitor hare feeding areas for signs of lynx. The lynx study is funded for three
years, but it might take ten to begin understanding this rare cat.
For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Kelleher.