Researchers work to save lynx from extinction amid worsening Washington wildfires
SEATTLE - In 2006, the Tripod Complex fire tore through the Okanogan National Forest. The fire was bad, but its effect on the wildlife habitat was worse.
Canada lynx, an elusive medium-sized wildcat, have struggled to keep numbers up in the North Cascades while wildfire have eaten up their historic range. Lynx love dense forests, so do wildfires. The fire burned up some of the best lynx habitat in the West.
Lynx are considered threatened by the Federal government, but in Washington state the future of the species is more up in the air. With a population hovering around 50, they’re at-risk of local extinction.
When the Tripod fire struck it was Washington state’s first modern mega fire, a fire that burns more than 100,000 acres. Flames ripped through trees that had baked in the summer heat, gaining momentum as it hit dead – or dying – beetle-infested trees.
It was a sign of our state’s climate future – since then, six more mega fires have surpassed the Tripod fire in size. Some burning in the exact same region, making a lynx comeback that much harder.
Fire ecologists believe that prescribed burns can restore a historical patchwork of fire breaks that could prevent future megafires, but doing so creates a conundrum: to save lynx, you need to prescribe burn the very habitat they rely on. The hypothetical sweet spot could save the species.
HOPE AS TIME RUNS OUT
As Carmen Vanbianchi points out two sets of lynx footprints in fresh snow alongside a mountain near Winthrop, you can tell she is excited.
"We’re seeing these animals together," she said. "That is very cool!"
One of the sets, Vanbianchi explains, is likely a lynx kitten they recently spotted. Three or four years ago, tracks in this area were non-existent. Now, she sees them nearly every time she rides her snowmobile up the mountain.
Vanbianchi is the research director of Home Range Wildlife Research. She’s leading FOX 13 deep into the North Cascades on an expedition to get a better idea of her research on lynx which involves trapping the wildcat in an attempt to track them.
It’s all unfolding at a critical time, there are major gaps in knowledge on how lynx utilize burned habitat.
"I watched this burn starting to regenerate – I just never, never stopped thing about how the lynx were doing as I saw the smoke column."
Vanbianchi, who earned her Master’s degree while working on lynx projects following the Tripod fire, was in the Methow Valley when she witnessed the land re-burn time and time again. She realized time was running out, but also found herself in a unique position as she traveled into the mountains and began to see lynx tracks re-appear.
"It took many years, but we started to see those tracks," she explained. "More and more up until a couple years ago when I thought: Whoa, we’ve got an opportunity to see how lynx re-colonize a big, huge burn."
Lynx are almost ghost-like in the wilderness. They have adapted to a cold, northern climate and can move quickly thanks to large, almost Muppet-like feet that are akin to snowshoes.
Those paws – much larger than bobcats, which they are often mistaken for – allow them to glide quickly over deep snowpack. That movement is key, because their primary prey, snowshoe hares, are fast, and agile in their own right.
On top of being fast and highly adapted to the terrain of the northern Cascades, the numbers are not in your favor to see a lynx in the wild.
That is why trapping is a key part of the project with Home Range. By trapping lynx, researchers can get close enough to sedate them. That allows a scientist to attach a radio collar that will give the team constant updates on what areas each lynx is utilizing.
Anna Machowicz, the education director for Home Range, told FOX 13 that the working of trapping lynx is a delicate balance. In a perfect world, you would not need to handle a study animal. This is not a perfect world, and time is running out to find a solution.
Of course, trapping a lynx is no easy task. Machowicz said the traps they use are a design that’s been used in the field before. They know what types of thing attract lynx too: deer meat, various urine and glands to add unique scents they are used to tracking.
Still, it seems lynx have individual personalities. While one animal will walk right by a trap without looking at it, the next one may walk right in.
"You do everything, bend over backwards to get them in that trap but once you finally get them – it’s worth it."
A series of trail cams have managed to capture lynx that have been trapped, and a few that have managed to evade them.
"Oh, it’s frustrating," she said with a laugh. "They’re not playing that game with you."
A CHANGING FOREST
Climate change-driven megafires have already arrived in Washington state, though fire ecologists expect a warmer, drier future.
The biggest concern involves fires that could build and burn right up to the edge of other burn scars. That would create a new cycle: if things burn too hot, seed banks could disappear and make it less likely that species would return to the land.
Adding to the mega fire concern is a long history of fire suppression. For years the plan to fire forest fires in the United States was simple: put it out, quickly.
In recent years, the idea of how to battle wildfires has shifted. More and more experts now push for prescribed burns, the idea of purposefully planning light burns to prevent larger destructive fires in the future.
Prescribed burns are not new. In fact, fire was an integral way of life for Indigenous tribes, until many land management agencies stopped the practice. These days, traditional ecological knowledge is becoming a bigger part of modern management.
"We got really good at fire suppression," explained Vanbianchi. "We put out all these little fires, so this landscape continued to mature and top out as this as an even contiguous swath of forest."
The Okanogan National Forest saw frequent burns before the era of fire suppression. Those frequent burns, according to Vanbianchi, created a natural patchwork that would act as firebreaks. By stopping those smaller fires, the mega fires we see today became inevitable.
That’s why Vanbianchi, and Home Range, is aiming to find a sweet spot for lynx. The hope is that prescribed burns could reinstate that patchwork, ultimately stopping mega fires that wipe out all of the prime lynx habitat in a single fire.
"If we reinstate that patchwork we could stop the negative feedback loop and reign in these fires a little bit."
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The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has already offered up funding for three years of the study, with hope of finding solutions.
"Learning more about how the environment and local species are adapting to the realities of climate change is essential to preserving the biodiversity in our own backyard," said Lara Littlefield, the foundation’s executive director of partnerships and programs.
Home Range is also collaborating with a number of local and federal agencies as they work toward a solution that will detail actions that can be implemented.
In the end, the project aims to understand how lynx are using burned areas and come up with management recommendations that will create more resilient forests for lynx, while reducing the risk of future mega fires.