It is considered to be one of the most elusive animals of the north. Quietly and stealthily moving throughout the forest, it often goes undetected by human eyes. So it is no surprise that when the animal is sighted, it is a special experience. I speak of the lynx. The northernmost member of the cat family found throughout Alaska and Canada. This unsuspectingly small animal (an adult weighs around 25 pounds) makes its home throughout the boreal forest where it finds its prey. A discussion of the lynx can’t be had without including the snowshoe hare. The hare serves as essentially the lynx’s sole food source, one that is not always the most reliable. As discussed elsewhere, the hare population oscillates over a period of 9-17 years, ranging between population overload and desolation. The changing population many things within the environment, including the population size of the lynx. As hares rise, so do lynx and vice versa, although with a slight delay from the changes of that of the hare.
Before this past summer, I had seen 2 lynx in my 2 years in northern Alaska. Both were quick sightings off the Wiseman Road, while neat, they were nothing revelatory. This past spring, I began occasionally tagging along with a lynx and snowshoe hare research group, with Knut Kielland and Claire Montgomerie, from University Alaska Fairbanks. Over the summer, the tagging along turned into regular volunteering and sporadic paid employment. My first foray into the field with the team was up Brock Creek, where they hoped to pinpoint the location of a lynx they had collared in the spring. Betty Lou, the name given to the lynx, had on a radio collar that allowed us to approximate her location with the use of telemetry gear. It was late May and aufeis still remained on the creek. Water flowed beneath the ice as we crossed thin ice bridges hoping to avoid wet feet. Moving back in the drainage, the sides of the creek rise rapidly with willows and spruce extending down to water’s edge. The brush and steep terrain obscured our view and signal, so we opted to climb into the alpine in hopes of finding our quarry. The ground was still damp from the melting of the previous winter’s snowpack, but in the afternoon sun we sprawled out amongst the tussocks and moss glassing the opposing side of the valley. Although the radio signal seemed to indicate that the cat was directly across from us, we had difficulty in locating her among the spruce trees and dense willow thickets. About an hour later, we spotted her, curled up under a spruce tree, napping and basking in the afternoon sun. The process of tracking down the lynx and spotting it well off the road system was thrilling. But this would only be one of many close encounters to come.
A few weeks later, on yet another clear, summer Arctic day, we headed up the slopes of Cathedral Mountain in hopes of finding kittens. Another one of the collared lynx, Rosie, had been centered around a particular area for weeks. There was thought that it was possible she was at a den site with new kittens. I had made a search by myself a week prior, but without a gps there was almost no chance of finding a den amidst the plethora of fallen trees and willow thickets. We climbed quickly, reaching what we thought was an equivalent altitude to the potential den site before traversing across the mountain side. We searched under roots, fallen trees and in any other holes we could find. It wasn’t long before Claire found the den. Inside were six kittens, each about the size of three fists put together. They attempted to hiss and clamored over each other as we approached. Just a few weeks old, they weren’t fully developed and weren’t very mobile. We took measurements of each kitten and captured photos before moving on our way. Thankfully, there was no sight of mom in the area. But one can only imagine what she thought upon returning to the den, encountering our scent but seeing all kittens fully alive and well.
In late summer, the crew returned in hopes of catching more lynx. We set up lynx traps from Marion Creek to the north of Snowden. On this stretch of about forty miles were thirty two traps. They were set not far off the road and were a mixture of cage and foothold traps. Ideally, all the lynx would be caught in the cage trap as there was less chance of injury for the lynx and it would be easier to process if we were to catch one. The daily routine was simple. We would head north each day, monitoring radio frequencies along the way to see if a trap has been triggered. Occasionally, a trap would be set off without anything in it or it would be triggered by a snowshoe hare. But on most occasions, we heard the steady, intermittent beeping noise that indicated no activity.
About a week into trapping, Claire and I left the car to investigate a cage trap that had been set off along the Dietrich River. Moving through the open spruce forest, we caught a glimpse of the cage in the distance. Inside was an adult lynx. Claire prepared a syringe full of telazol, a chemical agent that would incapacitate the animal for about an hour. While I distracted the lynx by jingling keys and breaking branches, Claire jabbed the syringe into one his rear legs. A few minutes later, the lynx lay dozy at the bottom of the cage. She pulled him out and after laying him on a tarp, we proceeded over the next hour to take measurements, samples, attach the collar and capture photos. With all tasks complete, we watched him stumble off, battling the drug’s lingering effects as he tried to retain full motor capabilities (the drug ‘s effects wear off completely within roughly 24 hours).
The next day, we caught that cat once more as it wandered into a foothold trap on the opposite side of the road, in the nearby area. One of the lynx they had collared the previous spring had a tendency to repeatedly enter traps and we hoped that wasn’t the case here. Each time a lynx was caught in a foot trap, it increased its risk for injury. Although we were hoping to catch as many lynx as possible, it was also our hope to avoid inflicting any injuries in the process.
That same week we found more success, catching yet another lynx. The cat was caught by one of his rear paws, allowing him to move around more freely. He ran back and forth, trying to escape, growling as we approached. I tried to distract him as Claire readied the syringe. He surprised both of us by lunging towards Claire and trying to climb a nearby spruce tree, but the trap held him back. Eventually, I was able to distract him long enough to allow for the inserting of the syringe, and he was soon out. Unlike the other lynx, we took almost no measurements. After Claire initially attached the collar, we struggled to get a signal. We swapped out collars but found the same issue. The collars were expensive, but often proved unreliable. Over the next 40 minutes we banged the collar against trees, ran a magnet over the area and tried every trick we knew of. No luck. We decided to attach a collar and hope that it would work later on. The drug’s effects were beginning to wear off as we discovered the collar we still had was now functioning. I held down the lynx’s legs as Claire sat astride him and swapped out collars. Another captured lynx with a hopefully functioning collar had us in great spirits as we made our way back. Returning to the car, we watched as a lynx walked across the trail no more than one hundred yards ahead of us. It was beginning to seem as if there were lynx everywhere.
After concentrated success, the next week and a half of trapping yielded no results. Knut returned towards the end of fall with two other researchers, Dash and Dana, attempting to catch more lynx. I did not assist on this go around, but the group caught four lynx, bringing the total to 9 collared lynx within the area. There isn’t any more field work planned until February, when we will attempt to catch more during the winter season. With the hare population continually increasing and more sightings of lynx tracks throughout the forest, it seems almost inevitable that there’ll be more close encounters starting in early 2018.