Lynx Needs Habitat Corridor Protection, Study Suggests

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
January 30, 2002
Efforts to conserve the habitat of the Canadian lynx, which was recently listed as threatened in the United States, have been difficult because the geographic range of this elusive species has been challenging to define. Now, researchers from Montana have solved at least part of the puzzle.

Researchers had not known whether populations of the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) lived in isolated pockets or across a continuous stretch of land. But genetic profiles from distant populations of lynx—in Montana's Seeley Lake, Banff in British Columbia, Watson Lake in the Yukon, and Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, among other places— show that these animals are all very similar.

"This indicates that there is a lot of gene flow through the entire region," said Michael Schwartz, of the University of Montana in Missoula, who led the study of lynx reported in the January 31 issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers found that many of the lynx they investigated had mated with animals hundreds or thousands of kilometers from where they were born, thus spreading their genes over a broad geographical region.

"The tendency of these animals to travel tells us that connectivity really matters," said Schwartz. This means there must be routes the animals can travel safely from one area to another, and protecting the animals will require more than saving isolated pockets of land with significant populations of lynx.

The publication of the report comes at a time when questions about the whereabouts of the lynx have generated quite a brouhaha in Washington.

In 1999 the United States launched a national survey of lynx to determine their distribution in the wild. Several hundred state and federal employees participated in the study, which involved collecting more than 13,000 samples of lynx hair from the wild and submitting them to a laboratory for genetic analysis.

A scandal broke in December when an investigation discovered that seven federal employees had submitted hair samples from lynx that were in captivity rather than in the wild.

Genetic testing was needed because it is difficult to visually distinguish lynx hair from that of bobcats, cougars, and domestic house cats, said Scott Mills of the University of Montana in Missoula. He is the director of the genetics laboratory that analyzed the hair samples for the national survey of lynx.

Mills said seven of the hair samples from captive lynx had been labeled to indicate they were collected in the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests in Washington state—two regions where lynx are rarely found.

The biologists who submitted the hair samples from captive lynx said they did it as "blind controls" to test whether the laboratory was able to accurately detect lynx hair. Other people said the biologists' motive had been to establish populations of lynx where there were none, as a means to restrict access to the land. The 1973 Endangered Species Act restricts human activities such as logging, mining, and recreation in areas occupied by endangered species.

"What these biologists did was wrong," said Mills. "They corrupted the integrity of the data." But despite the controversial incident, Mills argues that the results of the survey are scientifically reliable.

He noted that his laboratory analyzed 782 hair samples in 1999 and 1,017 samples in 2000, using a scientifically accepted method for distinguishing cat species, and only seven of those samples were mislabeled and therefore invalid.

"I'm still optimistic that the roots of the National Lynx Survey are solid," he said.

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