The Missing Lynx

Last wild cat confirmed more than a decade ago

Published online: Jan 11, 2022 Articles, Business, East Idaho Business
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If you lose something in the snow, Jason Wilmot is the guy you want searching. His eyes are trained to find what hides well in white. He looks for wildlife in winter, specifically wolverine and lynx. From the air and on the ground, Wilmot covers thousands of miles in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) looking for tracks in snow.

“I’m always and forever looking for tracks,” says Jason Wilmot, Bridger-Teton National Forest wildlife biologist. “Verification is a big thing. We need true, actual evidence.”

Wolverine evidence is rare, but Wilmot has it. What he doesn’t have is lynx. The last Canada lynx documented in the area was a radio-collared cat by Wyoming’s Greys River in 2010. That means the GYE is facing more than a decade of documenting nothing. The missing lynx really is missing.

“I’m not surprised, but I’m sad,” Wilmot says. “The historical picture of lynx in the GYE is certain. They were absolutely here, but go back centuries and it’s questionable.”

Two factors raise questions. First, snowshoe hares. They’re a diet staple for lynx and they’re definitely in Canada. They’re not definite in the GYE. Second, forest. It’s contiguous in Canada. It’s patchy in the GYE. It’s possible the last lynx was surplus from Canada that’s declined since. To study that, Wilmot’s research team saturated 1.9 million acres within the GYE’s 20 million acres with 54 trail cameras and thousands of hiked miles. For three winters, 2015 through 2017, the team followed tracks and imported images. They studied more than 3000,000 trail cam photos.

“We didn’t find a single picture of a lynx,” Wilmot says. “We didn’t find a single track or trace of DNA either. Nothing.”

Lynx are listed as a threatened species. Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest manages timber harvest within the limits of that listing. Across the border in Idaho, Caribou-Targhee National Forest doesn’t have the same restrictions, but lynx could be in the Gem State. The timber around Idaho’s Caribou Mountain, near Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, is across the border from Wyoming’s Greys River.

“If people see a track that might be of interest, I will follow up on it,” Wilmot says. “That’s how something is going to pop up. Someone is going to see something.”

Hundreds of trail cams dot eastern Idaho. Dozens of them are monitoring the area’s wolf population. Cameras are cheaper and less invasive than GPS collars. Cameras are also generalists. They take pictures of wolves, but they also take pictures of anything else that moves, including a bobcat and its kittens.

“You get that camera and it’s kind of a Christmas present in a way,” says Josh Rydalch, Idaho Department of Fish & Game regional wildlife biologist. “It’s amazing what we catch and it’s fun to watch what’s out there.”

In the case of the missing lynx, they’re revealing what’s not out there. Wilmot isn’t sorting photos to count cats. He’s sorting photos for the existence of any cats. If he ever finds a lynx, he’ll collar it so the needle in the haystack is easier to find.

“If we found a lynx, it would be a huge deal,” Wilmot says. “One could come through. It could happen. It’s like fishing. You don’t catch fish if you don’t put your line in the water.” 

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trails and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. My Place Among Fish, the sequel to her first book, My Place Among Men, is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.

The odds of seeing a lynx increase in the winter due to tracks in snow. Here’s how to identify wild cats in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes Eastern Idaho.

Tracks

Lynx have large tracks (think paws like snowshoes).

Lynx tracks are larger than bobcat tracks, which are the size of coyote tracks.

Lynx tracks are larger than mountain lion tracks too, but lynx stride is shorter.

Lynx track measurement for same paw over two strides averages 28”.

Mountain lion track measurement for same paw over two strides averages 40”. 

Tail

Lynx tail is short and tip looks like it’s been dipped in black ink.

Bobcat tail is a bit longer with white on the underside.

Mountain lion tail is the longest. 

Tufts

Lynx have spotted coats and long tufts of hair on the tips of their ears.

Bobcats have spotted coats and longer hair on their cheeks.

Mountain lions have solid coats and no extra hair on ears or cheeks.

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trails and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. My Place Among Fish, the sequel to her first book, My Place Among Men, is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.


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