Alaska Magazine: Tracking Lynx

I wrote the following essay for the January 2019 edition of Alaska Magazine.

Each paw is carefully placed atop the snow, allowing silent movement as he prowls around willow thickets or narrow trails through the forest.  While his eyes scan the surrounding vegetation, his ear’s stand above his head, ready to pick up the slightest of noises.   Upon spotting his camouflaged prey, he will sneakily inch closer until he is within reach, where in the span of microseconds, he pounces and devours his prey.  Throughout the winter season, this scene is often displayed through old tracks on the snow.  The predator in question is the lynx, the wild cat of the north.  It is an animal that can be abundant during certain years, but often ends up being the least sighted animal among humans due to its stealthy nature.

In the summer of 2017, I joined a graduate research group from the University of Alaska Fairbanks that was conducting field research near my home in the central Brooks Range.  Professor Knut Kielland and his student, Claire Montgomerie, were interested in studying snowshoe hares and lynx.  The primary goal for the field research was to take measurements and affix GPS and radio collars to captured animals.  These collars allowed Knut and Claire to study the movements of each animal, how they interacted in the nearby landscape and if such an event happened, how they died.  Knut is no stranger to studying these animals in literature or the field.  For over thirty years, he has conducted research in areas across the state, including the Brooks Range, Yukon Flats and Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.

While maintaining status as a predator, the size of a lynx isn’t intimidating to larger animals. A large adult may reach slightly over 30 pounds, but commonly adults are found to be between 25-30 pounds in weight.  This lightness has its advantage in allowing them to stay atop the snow pack during their winter season, allowing them the ability to prowl and chase their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.  The dynamic between the snowshoe hare and the lynx is one that is tightly coupled.  It is extremely rare for the snowshoe hare to maintain a stable population.  Throughout Alaska and elsewhere, research suggests that their population oscillates over a period of 9-17 years from low to high.  With each passing year their population rapidly grows, experiencing exponential growth towards the tail end of the cycle.  The hares become so abundant that they over shoot the carrying capacity of the environment, eating all the surrounding vegetation in the area leaving them with none for the future.  Soon after, the population crashes. With the hare essentially being the sole food source for the lynx, their population size ends up being highly correlated with that of the hare.

Knut and Claire were interested in studying this dynamic, especially the movements of the lynx during this period.  It is thought that the lynx migrate around the country, moving into areas that hold high hare populations.  Once within a region, they can produce and maintain large litters of offspring if there is an abundance of food.  In high times of the cycle during years past, lynx have extended all the way north to the Arctic Ocean Coast.  Such travel is surprising, given that there would be limited food opportunities for them beyond the tree line and the mountains.  But Charles Brower and others from Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) write of seeing lynx and having them for Christmas dinner during the early years of the 20th century. 

The summer was filled with activity. We went up remote valleys with telemetry equipment scanning hillsides with hopes of catching a glimpse of collared lynx. We stared at datapoints trying to infer meaning from the movement or lack thereof. Occasionally, such instances led to opportunities like finding a den full of kittens.  The rest of the season was filled with a strong push to deploy collars to other lynx, in hopes of collecting more data.  We traveled the country daily, checking the 30 plus traps that were set within the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk and Dietrich River Valleys.  By the end of the first week, Claire and I had caught and collared two new lynx, increasing the number of collared cats.

Trapping continued into the fall and an additional four lynx were captured and given GPS collars.  With multiple lynx wearing collars, Knut and Claire stand to gather valuable data as the cycle continues to progress. There are already interesting findings coming back from some of the lynx that have been collared.  One that was caught outside Tok ended up wandering hundreds of miles to the east into the Yukon Territory.  Research suggests lynx migrate west and to the north, following the rise of the hare populations.  Instead, this lynx, dubbed Hobo, decided to buck the research and head into the other direction.  Why? Such information is unknown, but with more data and further research, we can begin to better understand more about the animal’s relationship to the hares as well as the movements and behaviors of this silent predator.

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