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Citizen Science
Stalking Ghosts
Etched in the snow in Maine’s North Woods are signs of a phantom feline that’s quietly reclaiming a swath of northeastern forest and seeding hope for its survival.

In the heart of Maine’s North Woods on a bone-chilling February morning, hunched over, eyes to the ground, ankle-deep in wet snow, branches snapping in our faces, we zigzag through a thicket of white cedar and balsam. It takes a special kind of mindset to track an animal you’ll most probably never see. For nearly four hours we have been bushwhacking our way through a thick understory of young trees so dense that in some places we have to crawl. Our socks and knees are soaked. The sky is gray, and gunmetal clouds ominously portend rain. Nevertheless, we keep quiet and we keep looking. We are rewarded with plenty of animal signs etched in the snow: the loping trails of fishers; the tracks of snowshoe hares, red squirrels, red foxes, and ermine; the ambling footprints of moose (along with their plump droppings and clumps of strawlike fur); and the straight, purposeful trails of several coyotes. 

“We rarely see animals in the woods, and it’s a real treat when we do,” says Laura Sebastianelli, a naturalist at the Tanglewood 4H Camp and Learning Center in Lincolnville, who has led tracking workshops throughout the Northeast. Tracks, she says, are the next-best thing. “Finding tracks makes the woods come alive.”

The animal most on our minds today is the Canada lynx. While its core range is Canada, Lynx canadensis has a liking for lonely landscapes across the northern latitudes of the United States, too. So far today, its reputation for being rare, shy, and notoriously elusive has held up.

But then the feline gods smile down on us. “Oh, we’ve got something here!” shouts Sebastianelli. “This is very exciting!” The tracks of four separate lynx cross the snow. Everyone rushes in and we begin the treasure hunt. The paw prints are fresh. One set is larger; the furry foot is about four inches wide. Just a few hours ago a mother and her three kittens were in this very spot—it’s like deciphering a hieroglyph. You can see where they sat, ran, dragged their bellies, leaped over fallen trees, played, and marked their turf (yellow snow). “Oh, look at this bound!” Sebastianelli cries, pointing out tracks that reveal a huge leap, at least 15 feet, over a log. “This,” she says, “is as good as it gets.”

Maine locals have called the lynx everything from Indian devil to the ghost of the North Woods—fitting references to a lonely, nocturnal predator whose nighttime growls, snarls, and moaning cries can unhinge even the most grizzled of hunters.

Here in the North Woods, the shaggy spruce are draped in beardlike lichen, the mountains are rounded, and the lakes are as glassy as mirrors, while the aromatic smell of balsam fills the air. About 150 years ago Thoreau chronicled this primitive beauty in The Maine Woods. “It’s all mossy and moosey,” he wrote. “In some of those dense fir and spruce woods there is hardly room for the smoke to go up.”

There is, however, enough room for lynx to live here. Lynx numbers are growing, in Maine and beyond—in Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Colorado. But it’s fair to say that Maine’s resident population is special. The state is now the only eastern stronghold for lynx, and one of the cat’s core territories is concentrated in the North Woods around Moosehead Lake, the state’s biggest lake and a centerpiece of the largest undeveloped forested landscape east of the Mississippi.

As participants in the second annual lynx-tracking weekend, an educational field trip sponsored by Maine Audubon, we are here to learn tracking skills, to get a hands-on appreciation for this valuable region, and—with a little bit of luck—to see some signs of lynx. Buoyed by instructive slideshows yesterday evening and fortified by a hearty breakfast of French toast, the eight of us are eagerly following Sebastianelli and her co-leader, Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even though McCollough has been helping lead recovery efforts in the Northeast for the past four years, he has seen a wild lynx only once. One night in July 2005, around midnight, he and some colleagues were driving a gravel logging road through a remote hamlet on the state’s northern edge, where moose and trees—and just about everything else—outnumber people. “The lynx crossed the road in front of us,” he recalls. There was a flash of yellow from the eyes, and the mysterious cat disappeared as quickly as it came.

“We have very little idea how many lynx there are in the wild, because they’re so secretive,” McCollough says. One of the most problematic challenges has been simply establishing how many are living in the state. Radio-tagging and tracking have helped estimate a population of more than 500 cats. “But given the amount of habitat and the density of lynx that we see in Maine at this time,” says McCollough, “I think the feeling is that of all the areas in the lower 48 states where lynx are found, Maine probably has the largest population at this point in time.” Tracking such a mobile and solitary creature tests the limits of researchers. “The logistics are very difficult,” he explains. “It’s not like you can just go out and count them.” Much of the work takes place during winter in remote woods, where trackers trudge through knee-deep snow hoping to find lynx prints that lead to a live specimen.

 

Maine locals have called the lynx everything from Indian devil to the ghost of the North Woods—fitting references to a solitary nocturnal predator whose nighttime growls, snarls, and moaning cries can unhinge even the most grizzled of hunters. Slightly more than twice the size of your average house cat, the lynx is instantly recognizable by the puffy tuft of hair on top of each of its pointy ears, as well as its facial ruff, short ink-dipped tail, tawny-gray fur, and disproportionately long legs and oversized paws—perfect for snowshoeing through the drifts. A keen sense of hearing and sight helps the cat avoid most human encounters.

Though early reports are difficult to verify, a Maine physician named John Josselyn was probably the first European to leave a written account of the Canada lynx, in 1672, according to William Krohn, leader of the Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. After that the historical reports of lynx sightings increased—as did the tally of cats hunted for their pelts: In 1832 Maine issued a statewide bounty on all wildcats (including lynx), which remained in place until 1967. Manly Hardy, a major fur buyer in Maine during the mid- to late 1800s, wrote, “Lynx were so abundant that several hundred skins were sold in this market every year till about the last of the [Civil] war [1864-65].” 

At one time Canada lynx roamed from the boreal forests of Canada to the Rocky Mountains as far south as Colorado and Utah and from New England to Pennsylvania. It remains unclear how many of these shy cats once made their home in the United States, but by the 1970s they had all but disappeared. Wisconsin declared the lynx endangered in 1972, and Colorado followed in 1973. But it took nearly 30 years and lawsuits by numerous environmental groups before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed the cat as threatened, in 2000.

For a long time no one was sure if lynx in Maine’s North Woods were breeding or just passing through from Canada. Then, in 1999, biologists noticed that an adult female lynx they had radio-collared the previous year had stopped moving at the end of May. The biologists suspected that she had built a den to give birth, so they tracked her down. They found the den concealed in a dense stand of young saplings and larger uprooted trees. The tangle of vegetation hid two newborn kittens, one male and one female. (Lynx typically give birth to between one and four kittens, which stay with their mother for about a year.) Since then the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service have radio-collared 52 adult lynx and documented 34 litters in the Clayton Lake region, a remote logging area in the state’s northernmost parts.

“Maine really could be a source for population expansion into certain parts of the Northeast,” says Sally Stockwell, conservation director for Maine Audubon. “Because it is the only state in the Northeast where lynx now occur, we have an obligation to do all we can to ensure the future of lynx in their northeastern habitat.” If successful, says Stockwell, then one day this ghost of the North Woods will haunt new breeding grounds in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

 

That expansion, in fact, may have already begun. Last February trackers found the prints of a Canada lynx in Jefferson, New Hampshire. Although no evidence has yet been offered to prove the state currently has resident lynx, quite a few lived there into the 1960s, and it’s possible that a population could once again become established. McCollough is not surprised by the news. “New Hampshire is well within the dispersal distance of the lynx population in Maine,” he says. “Some have been radio-tracked 200 miles.”

The cat’s lasting return to the Northeast will depend in part on whether travel corridors connecting Maine’s lynx population with those in New Brunswick and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula stay open. “Retaining connectivity with lynx populations in Canada is important to ensuring long-term persistence of lynx population in the United States,” says McCollough. “In Quebec they still actively trap between 300 and 700 [lynx] each year.” In 2004 a female radio-collared in the Clayton Lake region was snared in the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula.

“We have very little idea how many lynx there are in the wild because they’re so secretive. The logistics are very difficult. It’s not like you can just go out and count them.”

Another determining factor of the lynx’s success in the Northeast will be the future of Maine’s privately owned forests. The designation of critical habitat for lynx currently does not affect private landowners or establish any refuges or other conservation areas. The biggest private landowner in the United States, Plum Creek Timber Company, owns about 929,000 acres in Maine, much of it prime lynx habitat. Recently the company reinvented itself as a real estate investment trust, called the Maine Forests Products Council, and presented a proposal to rezone for development about 421,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake area—right in the heart of 10,633 square miles proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a critical habitat designation. The sweeping plan calls for residential lots and two large resorts (see “Plum Foolish,” Audubon, July-August 2006). The Maine Forests Products Council asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude Plum Creek’s land from the critical habitat designation, even though it comprises the largest chunk of the 26,935 square miles identified by the agency in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, and Washington. Maine Audubon countered by calling for the agency to deny the exemption. “We can’t let lynx go extinct in Maine,” says Stockwell. “Lynx are in trouble across the nation, and Maine is the only state in the East where they exist.”

Upon entering Plum Creek land, a large metal sign greets us: “Welcome to Plum Creek Timber. Northeast Region. A Healthy Working Forest Managed for Multiple Uses. . . . Enjoy Your Visit!” Carved into the paint, following the sign’s closing line, are the words my ass. Can this forest really be managed for multiple uses—for hunting, fishing, logging, development, and wildlife?

When it comes to lynx, McCollough is not so sure. One thing that lynx need is food, and snowshoe hares make up the majority of their diet. Nearly 100 years ago naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, “Of all the Northern creatures, none are more dependent on the Rabbits than is the Canada lynx. It lives on Rabbits, follows the Rabbits, thinks Rabbits, tastes like Rabbits, increases with them, and on their failure dies of starvation in the unrabbited woods.”

Seton’s words still ring true. The area with our lynx tracks is littered with snowshoe hare droppings, looking like beige marbles in the snow. Hares are most abundant in young, regenerating forests that, like these, have plenty of dense understory—good for nibbling. These trees also provide ideal hunting, hiding, and denning habitat for lynx. A big problem is that this forest is the product of clearcuts in the 1980s to combat tree-eating insects. Since the state limited clear-cutting in 1989, the forest has been maturing, raising concerns among biologists that there will be a lack of suitable lynx habitat in 10 to 15 years.

But for today, at least, we revel in each new paw print as if it were a rare piece of artwork, which in many ways it is. “Look at that beautiful cluster of tracks,” says McCollough. The wet snow has preserved the details of fur and round footpads perfectly. One paw print even reveals the mother’s retractable claws, fully extended. Perhaps she was about to pounce on a snowshoe hare. And perhaps now, somewhere not too far from us, she’s curled up in her den, watching over her three kittens.

What You Can Do
As this issue went to press, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to exclude all private and state lands in Maine from the critical habitat designation. The agency extended similar exclusions in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington. The only habitat deemed critical for lynx was in North Cascades, Glacier, and Voyageurs national parks. Several environmental groups have indicated that a lawsuit is forthcoming. For updates on this issue, visit www.maineaudubon.org.

















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