Scientists question whether the Adirondack Park has enough habitat and prey for a wild cat adapted to boreal climes.
By Mike Lynch
A fellow carnivore scientist once showed Cristina Eisenberg the skeleton of an animal and asked her to identify it. Looking at the large hindquarters and feet, she guessed snowshoe hare. Told she guessed wrong, she took a closer look.
“I looked at the skull, and it was a lynx,” said Eisenberg, a scientist with Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental organization.
Eisenberg might be forgiven for her initial mistake: the Canada lynx and snowshoe hare have some anatomical similarities. “They have very big, soft feet that don’t punch through the snow,” she said. “Their feet are like snowshoes.”
Both animals evolved to live in moist boreal forests with lots of snow, and hares constitute the vast majority of a lynx’s diet.
“It can eat other small mammals like squirrels, but it can’t survive well on anything other than snowshoe hares,” Eisenberg said. “The lynx is a pretty poor hunter compared to the other carnivores.”
Lynx disappeared from the Adirondacks in the late nineteenth century as a result of logging (which destroyed their habitat), hunting, and trapping. About twenty-five years ago, biologists tried to reintroduce lynx to the Adirondack Park, but the effort failed. Currently, no lynx are thought to reside in the Park.
In November, wildlife advocates met near Lake Placid to discuss the possibility of the lynx and other predators, namely the wolf and cougar, returning to the Adirondacks, either naturally or through reintroductions. John Davis, who heads the Wildlands Network’s Carnivore Recovery Program, organized the gathering, dubbed the Eastern Carnivore Summit, at the Intervale Lowlands Nature Preserve, which is owned by Larry Master, a former chief zoologist with the Nature Conservancy and an Explorer board member.
In a perfect world, wildlife advocates would like to see lynx back in the Adirondacks, but they acknowledge that there are serious doubts about whether it could survive here, especially in an era of global warming. Rising temperatures pose a threat to boreal species adapted for life in cold climates.
Nevertheless, Davis contends that the state Department of Environmental Conservation should at least include the lynx on its recently updated list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need and do studies to see if it would be possible for the cat to survive here. At the moment, DEC has no plans to restore the lynx to the Adirondacks. Like the wolf, cougar, and all other extirpated species, the lynx was not included on DEC’s latest list.
“The warming climate and diminishing snowpack of future decades could pose future problems for the lynx,” Davis said. “But I don’t think we should rule out the possibility of lynx recovery.”
Joe Racette, a DEC wildlife biologist, said the department didn’t include extirpated animals on the list because it wants to focus its conservation efforts on viable populations of animals that currently exist in the state. He also cited the failed reintroduction twenty-five years ago and a scarcity of hares as reasons for the department’s decision. Based upon current estimates of snowshoe-hare population density, it is unlikely that there is sufficient prey base to support a viable population of Canadian lynx in the Adirondacks,” he said.
Sue Morse, a Vermont scientist who founded Keeping Track, which works to protect wildlife habitat, said careful studies would be needed before a reintroduction to ascertain whether lynx could survive in the Adirondacks.
“It’s nice to get all excited about charismatic species, but if it’s an ill-conceived sentiment then that’s what it is,” said Morse. “I think lynx is not the best choice for our resources in the Adirondacks. I think there are plenty of other species [to reintroduce], like cougars. If we’re going to play around with bringing an animal back that’s really going to have a positive impact on the ecosystem, it’s going to be cougars.”
Morse and Eisenberg said cougars and wolves are keystone species that, if reintroduced, would be able to survive in the Adirondack region and would have a significant positive impact on the Adirondack environment. Keystone species not only check the numbers of prey species, but they also impact the behavior of prey species. Having cougars and wolves around would affect where deer, rabbits, and even birds make their homes and how they feed.
Lynx, in contrast, are medium-size predators with a more restricted diet that consists largely of snowshoe hares, which are believed to have strong populations in the High Peaks and in the Tug Hill region, just west of the Adirondack Park.
Morse doesn’t think the reclusive cats will recolonize the Adirondacks, but she says it’s possible. Northern Maine has a large population of lynx, and smaller populations exist in New Hampshire and Vermont. She said the lynx could expand its range if the snowshoe-hare population exploded, causing them to reproduce more and disperse into new regions.
“If we don’t slam the door on the future, sometimes the future delivers a nice little surprise for us,” she said. “Should there be another dramatic movement up and down of hare, we can expect that lynx will move around accordingly to try to relocate and try to find what they need.”
The reintroduction in the High Peaks twenty-five years ago was a combined effort of DEC and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF). A study by ESF determined that there were 420 hares per square mile in the higher elevations—that is, between 2,360 and 4,800 feet. As a result, scientists estimated that the region could support about seventy lynx.
Eighty-three lynx (forty-nine females and thirty-four males) were released from 1989 to 1991. However, the lynx failed to establish a population. Nineteen were killed by automobiles, and eight were mistakenly shot by bobcat hunters. Others starved, were killed by predators (presumably bobcats or coyotes), or died of unknown causes. Some of the animals traveled great distances, including one that died 450 miles away in New Brunswick, Canada.
Retired ESF Professor Rainer Brocke, a leader in the restoration effort, offered a number of reasons for the failure: a lack of suitable conifer habitat, a high density of roads, and competition from bobcats. “We tend to think the Adirondacks is a pretty big park, which it is in the eastern United States, but if you look at that area compared to the west, it’s really quite small, and that’s our trouble,” he said.
Brocke, who is a wildlife scientist, said those involved in the reintroduction assumed the lynx would inhabit the higher elevations in winter, while bobcats would stay in the lowlands to hunt deer. As it turned out, Brocke said, the animals’ ranges overlapped. He believes bobcats drove out the lynx. “The bobcat is a buzz saw,” he said. “Don’t be fooled by the size of the cat. We found them pouncing and killing deer.”
Morse noted that the lynx were captured in the Yukon and so may not have been accustomed to living in habitat so close to roads. She said the reintroduction might have had a better chance of success if the lynx had been captured in Quebec, where the habitat is more similar to the Adirondacks.
In the intervening years, scientists have improved the methods of wildlife reintroductions, according to wildlife biologist John Laundre, vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. For example, he said releases of solitary animals such as lynx and cougar should include many pregnant females. “Once they have those kittens, they’re tied to the area, and that’s going to keep them in that area,” he said.
Yet given the lack of suitable lynx habitat and the scarcity of hares, Laundre believes that even a lynx reintroduction that met today’s standards would probably fail.