Record Number of Lynx Kittens Found in Maine

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( June 24, 2002.

The Maine lynx study team has now documented 65 lynx (29 adults and 36 kittens), leaving no question that there’s a self-sustaining population in Maine.

By the early afternoon of June 20, 2002 Maine’s Canada lynx researchers were ready to wash off the sweat and celebrate. They had just finished investigating the ninth known lynx den in northwestern Maine, ending this year’s search in an ecstatic mood over finding a record number of kittens.

The four newborns of L43 pushed to 22 the number of young located by researchers during a single denning season. "We’ve increased our total [of young since 1999] by one-third [this season]," enthused Adam Vashon, a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) biologist who is a key member of the lynx study team.

For the first time, kittens were fitted with a PIT (positive integrated transponder) tag, in addition to small green plastic IFW tags clipped into their ears. The PIT tag is a rice grain-size microchip injected under the kitten’s skin. It contains a one-of-a-kind bar code that gives a numeric number to the reader, who powers the tag by running a hand-held scanner over it.

The study team has now documented 65 lynx (29 adults and 36 kittens), leaving no question that there’s a self-sustaining population in the industrial forest around the Musquacook lakes. Still, researchers believe the species is at risk in Maine because its well-being is tied directly to that of the snowshoe hare, its prime prey that’s currently at a cyclical peak.

Through tracking radio-collared adults, researchers knew that nine females had denned in dense, regenerating forest and likely had litters. Between June 12-19, they had found seven dens and tagged 16 kittens four or five weeks old. The last two lairs visited on June 20 turned up two kittens in one and four kittens in the other. It was the first season of finding four kittens from one mother, and this year they found two litters of four.

Jennifer Vashon, IFW’s lead field investigator, was equally enthusiastic as her husband, Adam, about the numbers of kittens this season. She had never expected to find so many lynx in the north woods. "I feel privileged every day in the field," she said. "So few people get to work with lynx. Every day is a historic moment," Vashon said.

Wally Jacubas, IFW’s mammal group leader, observed that the lynx study "is giving us a real good look at where the animals are living in Maine. We didn’t have any idea of the abundance . . . or the mortality factors for lynx," he said. In fact, the position of IFW officials was that there was no breeding population of lynx in Maine and the lynx tracks found in winter were those that happened to wander over from Canada.

The current study is designed to not only document lynx’s survival, reproduction and interaction with other predators but also their range, habitat use and limiting factors, such as hare numbers. It will make recommendations of how best to protect the lynx in the future. (See Canada Lynx range map)

There are now 29 radio-collared lynx in the Maine woods.

The March 2000 listing of the lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act put a premium on the Vashons’ work –the only study of its kind in the Northeast. It will undoubtedly be influential in FWS’ regional conservation plan for lynx, which is required by the listing. The plan will address land use practices to maintain lynx habitat and policies for recreational use in occupied lynx territory by motorized vehicles.

The environmental group RESTORE: The North Woods, which was part of a lawsuit that led to the federal listing of lynx, believes that Maine represents the best opportunity in the Northeast for survival and recovery of the cat. While lynx are widely distributed through the northern forests of Canada and Alaska, there are scattered populations of an estimated several hundred in several of the lower 48 states. In the East, only Maine has a documented lynx population.

The IFW biologists’ excitement of finding so many kittens this season was tempered by the knowledge that June 20 might have been the last field day for the project, initially planned to go to a fifth year through the summer of 2003. The program, which costs about $250,000 a year, has been funded by FWS’s Division of Federal Aid, IFW, wildlife foundations and conservation organizations. "We’re pretty close to empty for field operations," said IFW’s Jacubas.

Dr. John Organ, wildlife program chief of FWS aid division, has spearheaded the financial end of the study and is currently beating the bushes for more money. "We’re still waiting to hear on money," said Jacubas. If the money materializes, the researchers will go back into the field soon for another important part of the study -- capturing lynx to put radio collars on them. So far, there are 29 radio-collared animals in the woods.

Even if the field work stops short, money has been set aside for Jennifer Vashon to spend a year and a half analyzing the data and writing reports on the best survey methods, mortality factors, habitat concerns and lynx demographics, according to Jacubas. It’s a necessary step to prove the project benefits to funders, the public and the scientific community, he said.

Meanwhile, two supplemental lynx studies are underway by IFW. Snow-tracking is problematic, depending on the weather, so biologists are trying new ways to detect lynx. The department’s Endangered Species Program and the Maine Natural Areas Program are deploying 10 motion-sensitive cameras in certain areas to take photos of lynx that pass by bait. The project is focusing initially on 20 townships in northwestern Maine and then will move to eastern Aroostook and on to western Maine. The technique has been used successfully out West by the U. S. Forest Service to detect lynx and other predators. IFW’s mammal group has been funded to test the efficacy of "hair snares" – a piece of carpet that lynx rub against in the woods that collects hair to be DNA-tested. Also, a University of Maine at Orono doctoral candidate is looking at how lynx and hare respond to different habitat types and forestry practices. She has completed one field season of data on three lynx.

Habitat politics

Lynx are known for their secretiveness and big feet. With brownish-gray fur, long black ear tufts and a short, black-tipped tail, they usually hunt and travel alone, day and night.

With the high number of lynx dens this season, the Vashons were able to invite landowners and funders of the project to accompany them in the field. Forest products companies were concerned awhile back that their cutting practices might be challenged by government regulators or environmental groups.

Land management in the area includes extensive cutting, herbicide spraying to promote softwood regeneration, pre-commercial thinning and roadbuilding. Clearcutting was the main cutting practice in the spruce budworm salvage era of the late 70s and 80s. The forest practices act, enacted in 1989, stopped big, rolling clearcuts, and landowners are mostly engaged in partial cutting, a practice that removes a certain amount of a stand per harvest operation.

Questions around the impact of cutting practices on lynx were put on the backburner when researchers found lynx thriving in areas that had been clearcut 10 to 15 years previously and are thick with new growth. This summer, Adam Vashon said that landowners "were excited to see" the lynx for the first time. The presence of the cat in regenerating stands "obviously shows positive on their management history," he said.

Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE, said this season’s kitten count is "good news, after listening to IFW for years saying we didn’t have lynx and if we did there were not enough to worry about or list as endangered because there was no proof of a viable population. That assertion "has been shown not to be true," he said.

Finding lynx in regenerating stands "shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that lynx prefer cutover land," St. Pierre asserted. "Obviously, the predator/prey relationship is a critical point, so I’m not surprised to find lynx in" younger stands where there are hare, he said. The IFW study "is showing that lynx are more adaptable than previously thought," said St. Pierre. "That’s good news." But it doesn’t mean that cutover land is the only habitat Maine should have for lynx, he said.

"We’ve been dealing with the question of quantifying where and how many lynx are here," St. Pierre said. "I think the issue we’re moving into is [habitat] quality. What kind of habitat do we want to provide lynx? This effort is going to help inform the debate."

Lynx are known for their secretiveness and big feet. With brownish-gray fur, long black ear tufts and a short, black-tipped tail, they usually hunt and travel alone, day and night. The adults, weighing under 30 pounds, measure an average of two and a half feet long and have cougar-size paws of three and a half to five inch feet (width and length). Their large feet conceal retractable, bunny-snatching claws, but also that allow them to float atop snow.

Historically, lynx occupied the boreal forests of the Northeast, the Great Lakes states, the northern Rocky Mountains/Cascades and the southern Rocky Mountains, using a mosaic of forest stands -- young trees for hunting hares to old-growth for building dens. Lynx were overhunted and trapped for their fur. Although now protected from all taking in the U. S., except in Montana and Alaska, there are only a few hundred lynx left in the lower 48, according to FWS. The greatest threat to them today is the destruction and overuse of their forest habitat.

Trapping lynx in Maine was outlawed in 1967. After that, hard evidence of the animals having a viable population disappeared – but not their tracks. FWS had dismissed Maine (and the Northeast) as a priority area for lynx, but the Vashons research has put the state back into play.

IFW winter surveys of fur-bearers led biologists to specifically look for lynx east of St. Pamphile on the Quebec border in the winter of 1999. Finding no lynx there, they shifted their focus to a more heavily tracked area in the Musquacook lakes area, 40 miles to the southeast. They’ve been there ever since.

The historic logging hamlet of Clayton Lake, about 60 miles east of Ashland over the graveled Realty Road, serves as the field station for the lynx study. Clayton Lake Woodlands, also based at the lake, provides IFW a small camp to house the study team. Electricity (from a central generator), satellite television and a hot shower at the end of the day are welcomed luxuries in this remote neck of the woods.

The field crew operates from the camp almost year-round, with a breather in mud season and in November, when there’s office work to do in Bangor. Winter can be especially grueling, depending on snow depths. Using snowmobiles, the crew travels long distances on unplowed roads tracking the radio-collared lynx. Snowshoes are necessary to follow the cats on foot into the forest interior. While looking for lynx, the crew counts the number of snowshoe hare tracks intercepting a segment of road to determine the availability of food for lynx. Over 90 percent of the lynx’s diet is hare.

A great ending

Lynx kittens, with baby blue eyes and soft blonde/beige fur, are cuddly fur balls.

On June 20, the Vashons, accompanied by supervisor Jacubas, were out of camp by 7:30 a.m. to meet representatives of Irving Woodlands and locate the den of L40. (All lynx are given a sequential number for identification.) Because the biologists want to keep the den visit as quiet as possible, they take no more than three visitors at a time. Waiting for the second den were aspiring veterinarian Hope Valentine, fresh out of college and on hand to observe the lynx work, and myself.

When we met up with the biologists at Knowles Corner, Adam Vashon reported, "It was the most frustrating den I’ve done," explaining how "mobile" the kittens were. When the small furry balls run around and hide, it takes the biologists precious time to uncover them and stresses the kittens for a longer period.

L40’s pair of newborns were females, raising the gender count to eight females and 10 males. One weighed in at one pound, 15 ounces; the other, at two pounds, two ounces. Even then, the kitten/den number was a big jump from 2001 when the crew found six kittens in four dens.

Now, at another site north of the Realty Road, five of us were poised to locate the last den, on a low rise cutover about 15 to 20 years ago. Adam, with the radio antennae, led the way up a rutted old tote road and pointed out bear tracks and white round scat on a rotten stump that he identified as lynx scat. We tromped through raspberry bushes, saplings, clusters of flowering bunchberries and ladyslippers before we reached the very dense spruce and fir thickets at the top of the little hill.

All of us but Adam stopped in the shade when the beeps from the telemeter told us that we were about 400 feet from the den. "We probably could get closer but he can get closer to the mother before she jumps off the den if things are quieter," Jennifer whispered.

We waited about 20 minutes, fending off hordes of black flies as best we could. We put on plastic gloves to mask our human scent and protect ourselves from the kitten’s claws. Adam announced in a low voice through the mobile phone, "I’ve got the den site. I can hear the mother growling." He gave Jennifer the GSP coordinates, and we moved into a thicket so dense we had to crawl. The mother lynx had stood her ground until the last minute before leaving the den, and the kittens scurried this way and that.

The stand was so dense we could only hear – not see – each other during the kitten roundup. "I’ve got one," reported Adam. Hope swept up another one running past her. They put both young went into packs while they helped locate the other two.

The mother had been standing by in the bush all along, growling low from time to time. As we left, we could hear plenty of vocalizing from the reunited family.

There was barely any maneuvering room at the spot where all four kittens were looked over and tagged. Lynx kittens, with baby blue eyes and soft blonde/beige fur, are cuddly fur balls. This group was also spunky, baring their teeth and leaving scratches on Jen and Hope during the look-see for sex and physical measurements. The kittens gave no sign of pain when the tags were clipped in their ears or the PIT tag was inserted. Adam explained that they put in the PIT tag between the kittens’ shoulders where the female grabs them and there may be fewer nerves.

It took about 25 minutes for the workups, and then the kittens were returned to the den. The mother had been standing by in the bush all along, growling low from time to time. As we left, we could hear plenty of vocalizing from the reunited family.

Afterward, Adam thought that L40 was "the toughest female" he had ever encountered. "She stayed looking at me and growling, holding the den site" until she took flight. "They’ll give you up to 10 to 15 feet," Adam explained. They flee because humans are larger creatures, he added.

The kittens of the last litter were the second group of four discovered this year. Until now, no litters that big had been found in Maine, although that size is not uncommon where lynx are plentiful. The 2002 litter sizes were 4,4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1 and 1. In the final analysis, the gender grouping came to 10 females and 12 males.

For Adam, it was a memorable day – his last as part of the lynx study team. With project funding up in the air, he recently took a job with the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Augusta. "It’s a good way to end," he said of the best-yet kitten count.

(More info on Canada Lynx)