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Phantom Predators: In Search of Lynx and Wolverines

As we launch our newest project in the Uinta Mountains of Utah and Wyoming, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation media coordinator Grace Kay Matelich reports on the elusiveness of the lynx and wolverine in the contiguous United States, their historic range, and habitat connectivity.

Moonlight, starlight, and in-tent flashlight, are magnified in a long-exposure night shot in the Uintas, Utah. (Photo by Jay Beyer)

Our planet is home to more than 7 billion people. We often see ourselves as the highest on the food chain.

But we are not apex predators.

We kill apex predators.

These animals play a vital role in maintaining the balance of an ecosystem. They control population numbers of lower class predators and herbivores, keeping them from overpopulating and destroying native plant life. According to Caroline Fraser, a writer for Yale Environment 360, “the loss of these predators is a “global decapitation of the systems that support life on earth.”

And the ripples of population decline in this class of predators go beyond the disruption of the natural balance of our ecosystems—they can also increase the occurrence of some diseases.

Dynamic Duo

Canada Lynx (Photo by Emmanuel Keller)
The Canada lynx is a silent but significant force in this ecosystem. (Photo by Emmanuel Keller)

Canada lynx and the North American wolverine are two of our more elusive neighbors in the United States. Both of these apex predators thrive in boreal forest, or taiga, and exist in metapopulations—sprawling populations that seldom interact with one another.

While strength may lie in numbers, there is nothing feeble about the sight of the lone lynx or wolverine commanding his or her terrain. The lynx’s signature stare is enough to stop any man in his tracks, and the wolverine is famed for its ferocious attitude.

Habitat fragmentation in the form of roads, highways, and subdivision poses a major threat to lynx and wolverines, because connectivity between isolated populations is crucial to both species’ survival.

Protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Canada lynx historically inhabited California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Missing Lynx

ASC has done a number of projects focused on apex predators, and this summer we’re studying lynx and wolverines in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, where the Forest Service needs more information to better manage its lands.

Although Utah is considered part of the lynx’s historic range, the last officially documented lynx sighting in Utah was in 2004, tracked by satellite when two lynx intended to reestablish the population in Colorado moved through the Book Cliffs east of the Wasatch Range. The wolverine’s historic and current ranges are similar, and last year, a wolverine was documented in Utah for the first time in 30 years.

Because biologists don’t fully understand either species’ population or distribution, each new piece of information adds a valuable piece to the puzzle.

A beautiful weekend of training for the first ASC Uintas crew. (Photo by Hanz Johansson)
Rocks have come down from where we’ll need to go up. (Photo by Hanz Johansson)

“Finding wolverines [or lynx] in the Uintas would help illustrate the importance of wildlife corridors, and also show that animals are moving up and down the American cordillera,” said ASC Program Director Mike Quist Kautz.

These Mountains Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us

The story of wolverine conservation is the same as the story of connectivity, according to former Craighead Institute researcher and wildlife biologist Brent Brock.

“There is strong scientific consensus that at least in the northern Rockies, there are no single [mountain ranges] large enough to hold a genetically viable population of wolverines,” Brock said. “That means that each range like the Uintas can, at best, provide habitat for relatively few animals.”

The Uinta Range could optimistically support around 21 wolverines, according to a 2013 study led by renowned wolverine researcher Dr. Bob Inman. Given that there are only 250-300 wolverines in the United States, that’s a fairly sizeable figure. The US has habitat capacity for roughly 650, according to the same study.

The Bigger Picture

For both the lynx and wolverine, the real benefit of research like this is in what it means for the species as a whole, rather than in what it means for the population of a specific area. Spotting these predators in the Uintas would not only help us better understand their numbers, it could also show that they are expanding their habitat—a good sign for long-term health. The data that ASC’s adventurers are providing to USFS biologists will both fill gaps in understanding and inform habitat management decisions.

Ultimately, conserving these apex predators could mean conserving the health of our shared ecosystem. More than that, one thing is certain: It’s up to us to do more to protect our neighbors.

A beautiful first weekend of training (Photo by Hanz Johansson)
A cold lake doubles the scenery on a beautiful first weekend of training. (Photo by Hanz Johansson)

Learn more about the ASC Uintas Project on our website, the Field Notes blog, and our FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Google+ pages. 

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Correspondents