Tracking the elusive cats to learn their habits and habitats will
inform species recovery and forest management practices
About the Photo:
Angela Fuller uses radio telemetry to find lynx tracks and a global
positioning system (above) to record the location of tracks and
vegetation plots. She and her team strive to understand how lynx
move through different types of woodlands and hunt snowshoe hare.
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Bushwhacking through the Maine woods in
winter is no picnic. Snowshoes are required, but deep powder can hide
downed trees and layers of ice that make the going treacherous.
Moreover, snow can pile atop dense stands of small conifers, creating
hard-to-see holes deep enough to swallow the unwary traveler. Short days
limit the daylight hours. Temperatures are often below zero.
None of this has stopped Angela Fuller. For the last two winters, the
University of Maine Ph.D. student in the Department of Wildlife Ecology
and a crew of wildlife technicians have strapped on their snowshoes,
packed a lunch and put monitoring equipment on their backs to track one
of Maine's most elusive forest animals, the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis).
Their goal is not to observe lynx directly. (In fact, Fuller has never
seen a lynx in the course of her fieldwork.) They want to understand how
lynx move through different types of woodlands and what they need to
hunt their favorite prey, the snowshoe hare.
The lynx is a tawny-colored wildcat, just under three feet long from
tufted ears to stub tail. In the U.S. outside of Alaska and Hawaii, it
is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The
size of the American population is unknown, according to the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, but during colonial times in the East, lynx were
reported from Pennsylvania to Quebec. Maine had a bounty on lynx that
was not repealed until 1967.
Today, Maine is considered the species' southern limit, although lynx
have been seen in New Hampshire. Larger populations exist in Canada and
Alaska, where they are hunted for their fur. Researchers also monitor
lynx in Minnesota, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Lynx research takes Fuller and her crew into northwestern Maine, not far
from the Canadian border. On a typical day, they are up well before dawn
to drive 20 miles to a logging road. As the sun breaks over the horizon,
they fire up snowmobiles and turn on radio telemetry equipment. They
head down logging roads where they listen for the telltale beep of a
nearby lynx in their receivers. Their goal is to get close to one or
more of the animals that state and federal researchers have outfitted
with radio collars.
Once a lynx is located, the researchers zero in not on the animal itself
but on its tracks. They follow the tracks back in the direction from
which the animal came, studying how forest characteristics might have
influenced its movements.
"We have a general idea where the lynx are located, but they can move
around a (home range) that's 20–55 square kilometers (8–21 square
miles). So we're traveling on a lot of roads to figure out where it is.
We want to find it as soon as possible, because then we have to walk in
on snowshoes to where we pick up the tracks. And that's where we
actually start our work," Fuller explains.
Angela Fuller uses radio
telemetry to find lynx tracks and a global positioning system
(above) to record the location of tracks and vegetation plots. She
and her team strive to understand how lynx move through different
types of woodlands and hunt snowshoe hare.
Photos courtesy of
Her research is of interest to federal
agencies that are developing a national recovery plan for lynx, and to
forest landowners who are increasingly driven by environmental
"Fuller's work is a key piece of research that will help us to better
understand the ecology and management of lynx in the Northeast," says
Mark McCollough of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has funded
Fuller's work. McCollough, a UMaine graduate, represents the Northeast
on the national committee developing the recovery plan.
Fuller has already contributed to the planning effort. Part of her
UMaine master's degree research focused on the abundance of snowshoe
hare in forests managed using partial harvesting methods. She found that
hare are less abundant in partially harvested sites than in the dense,
new growth of regenerating clearcuts. The implication, says McCollough,
is that clearcutting is desirable at some level if forest managers want
to provide habitat for hare and lynx.
Other organizations that conduct or support lynx research in Maine
include UMaine's Cooperative Forestry Research Unit (CFRU), which
provides Maine forest landowners with science-based management
information. Since 1999, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and
Wildlife has been studying lynx with a focus on habitat and population
status. The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Agricultural and Forest
Experiment Station also provide funding for Fuller and other scientists.
Biologists estimate that Maine's lynx population is in the hundreds and
growing, although its true size is not well known. If lynx are indeed
expanding their population in Maine, it may be a relatively recent
phenomenon, one that could be a result of an abundance of snowshoe hare
or the ways in which forest owners have been managing their lands,
As a master's student, Fuller, who grew up in Colchester, Vt., worked on
a landmark study of another northern forest mammal, the American marten.
Marten are smaller than lynx, and their trails frequently snake under
logs and downed trees.
Today, Fuller's Ph.D. project is one of several lynx research efforts
advised by UMaine Professor of Wildlife Ecology Dan Harrison. Under
Harrison's guidance, students are evaluating habitat relationships of
lynx and snowshoe hare in the managed forests of northern Maine. Since
coming to Maine in 1988, Harrison has lead a program focusing on
predator-prey relationships in forest ecosystems, as well as
interactions among species such as the Eastern coyote, bobcat, fox and
Fuller's winter tracking begins in January. She and her crew live for
three months at a time in a logging camp owned by Clayton Lake Woodlands
in Aroostook County. Their duplex cabin includes shower and kitchen
facilities. "It's kind of posh compared to what I was used to on the
marten project," where months were spent living in a trailer with no
running water or electricity, Fuller says.
When it comes to tracking lynx, gender matters. Male lynx are typically
easier to follow — and for longer stretches — because they tend to stick
to trails and open areas, Fuller says. Females with kittens like patches
of dense vegetation, and tracking them can mean crawling through
blowdowns and thick brush.
"I have never seen a lynx when we're tracking, only ones that were
trapped (as part of state and federal research studies)," she says. "Two
of the technicians saw one off on a side road from the main logging
road. When they heard the telemetry signal, they waited at the
intersection behind some trees. The lynx came walking straight toward
them. It sat, scratched itself, rolled in the road and urinated. They
got to watch it for a long time. They were really excited. It ended up
walking right by them."
Crew members get to the heart of Fuller's research as they work along
the track, establishing small plots to survey vegetation every 325 feet.
In each, they painstakingly count the trees and saplings of different
species, estimate average tree height and the density of tree canopy.
They also take a basal measurement of tree trunks in a cross section of
Relating vegetation to lynx behavior means thinking like a lynx. "When
you're following the tracks, you have to think backward in terms of how
(the lynx) was making decisions. I'm trying to figure out if lynx are
selecting similar vegetation as snowshoe hare. Or are they located in
areas that have high snowshoe densities?"
The crew records areas where the lynx might have stalked a hare, rested
briefly or slept overnight. They note the tracks of other animals that
crossed its path, as well as the twists and turns of the lynx.
Places where the lynx killed a hare get special treatment. "Sometimes it
takes time to figure out where the lynx came from, where it ended up and
what happened in between. How long did the chase take? Was the lynx
bounding or jumping? Was it in an open area when it killed the hare and
then dragged it into a more closed canopy area? I'm measuring all these
things," says Fuller.
Fuller once watched from a plane as a lynx stalked a hare. "You'd think
it would capture and kill immediately. But hare are very fast and more
efficient than lynx at going through dense vegetation. The hare came out
of the vegetation and the lynx slowly stalked it. The lynx never had a
burst of speed until that final moment when it was actually going to
kill. It conserves its energy until it knows it can finally reach (its
Although scientists know little about most aspects of lynx reproduction
and behavior, the predator-prey relationship between lynx and snowshoe
hare has been thoroughly investigated. Population cycles of the two
species are closely linked. Researchers in Canada have recently
suggested that if a changing climate alters the balance between lynx and
hare, other changes could ripple through northern forest ecosystems.
For Fuller, the ultimate question comes down to how forest practices
such as selection harvesting, clearcutting and pre-commercial thinning
affect that balance.
"It's possible that forest practices have increased the number of
snowshoe hare in Maine and, thus, lynx. But forest management practices
change. There's no guarantee that we'll continue to manage the woods
like we do now.
"What's important is long-term planning for forestry — thinking about
how the landscape composition will change through time, the placement of
different cuts, juxtaposition with mature forest — and how, on a
landscape scale, that will affect different species."
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.