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The Secretive Lynx of the Uintas

Earlier this summer the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed to list the Canada lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species where they historically resided. The significance of this issue is obvious as lynx are native Utahns found today only in the Uintas. They barely cling to existence deep in the shadows of the Uintas’ diverse and extensive forests and subalpine parklands.

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a secretive, medium-sized cat (20-25 lbs.) slightly larger than the bobcat, with its hind legs longer than its front legs, large well-furred paws, long and unique tufts on the ears and a short black-tipped tail. Its habitat is exclusively boreal and subalpine forests of the West and Canada. It is adapted to high mountains with deep snow and intersects habitat with its smaller, lower elevation cousin, the bobcat, only rarely as the bobcat is not adapted to high mountain survival.

Lynx territories range from 5 to 95 square miles. They can travel great distances and require isolation from human impacts--they are a classic wilderness species. They rely on diverse forests and are dependent on old growth mature forests for denning sites and protection from severe winter weather for kittens. They also use early successional forests for hunting. Studies show that lynx avoid roads and clearcuts and that intensive forest practices fragment and isolate their already patchy and disappearing habitats.

In the northern latitudes of its existence the lynx is classically tied to the snowshoe hare. They follow an evolutionary and ecological dance that takes populations of both species, one following the other, to highs and lows. In southern latitudes here in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming the lynx still favors the snowshoe hare but preys on numerous other small species. Neither the lynx or snowshoe hare exhibit deep population cycles in these southern latitudes. It is thought this is a function of more abundant prey species, more competitors with the snowshoe hare and the fact that habitat in this southern reach of both species is suboptimal.

Lynx populations, like those in Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado, have always been of a low density here in Utah and have found their refuge primarily in the Uintas. This proposal by the USFWS acknowledges that throughout the lower 48 the lynx has experienced precipitous drops in population, even in its most secure habitats.

At the outside the lynx population in the Uintas is considered very small to a non-reproducing assortment of individuals. It is a sad thought to imagine a few lynx roaming the Uintas not knowing their kind exists. That must be made right!

The primary threats to lynx are not surprising-- intensive even-aged logging (clearcutting), road building and snowmobiling. The list also includes increased non-motorized recreation use in backcountry areas and oil and gas development. All of these activities either directly alter or fragment their effective habitat or alter their behavior (harassment, direct or indirect) so that their use of effective habitat is altered or fragmented. Lynx need large areas of diverse forests and wild conditions to make a living. They painstakingly avoid clearcuts, roads, large unnatural open areas, and people. The integral 1000 square miles of the Uintas, wilderness and roadless areas that remain undeveloped, is the last place in Utah the lynx can call home.

In a detailed letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service in September we concluded, based on the scientific literature produced by the Fish and Wildlife Service listing report, as well as a detailed report prepared by the Forest Service (The Scientific Basis for Conserving Forest Carnivores, American Marten, Fisher, Lynx and Wolverine in the Western United States, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, General Technical Report, RM-254), that: "The concept and context of refuge in this instance is crucial, given the sensitivity of the lynx to human disturbance and the natural fragmentation of its primary habitat. Places like the Uintas offer the only meaningful habitat for the lynx in Utah, thus the designation of the appropriate ecological/ geographical landscape as critical to the survival of the lynx is of consequence."

The decision to list is not without incredible controversy. Most state wildlife agencies oppose the listing for fear of impacts to trapping or hunting. Loggers and snowmobiles and oil developers all opposed the listing. None of this is based on science or a deep respect for natural processes; all is based on the tired wail that the protection of lynx will further restrict ME!

We urge you to engage this issue to assure lynx is given a chance to survive in his home here in Utah.

Dick Carter


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