Balancing Fire, Felines And Forest Management In Montana
The timber industry, land managers and environmentalists are at loggerheads in lynx country. Canada lynx have been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 2000, they’re at the heart of legal battles over forest management; and in 2017, Montana politicians blamed a lawsuit over lynx protection for the 18,000-acre Park Creek Fire outside Lincoln, along with other blazes across the state.
So having good science about lynx is essential to finding a balance between forest uses like timber harvest and recreation, and preservation of the species.
Scientists are now learning new things about how the sneaky, long-legged, 25-pound felines move through the snow and adapt to habitat that’s quickly changing due to a warming climate.
But lynx are hard to find, and even harder to follow through the trees. That’s where these two guys come in.
"I’m Luke Lamar, and I’m our conservation director at Swan Valley Connections."
"And I’m Mike Mayernik, and I am the conservation and forest stewardship associate."
Swan Valley Connections is a nonprofit focused on conservation through science and collaboration with the Forest Service, industry and locals. And they’re the resident tracking experts here, just southwest of Seeley Lake. The two have been zooming around on snowmobiles in the area looking for lynx since 2012. They say they do tracking at 40 miles per hour.
"We look at how far the animal’s stepping," Mayernik says. "We look at the size of the foot of the animal."
Lamar adds, "What we’re looking for out here is a big-footed animal where a lot of other carnivores can’t exist."
Lynx look a lot like bobcats, but they have longer legs, black ear tufts and exceptionally big paws. When we’d be waist-deep in powder, those beefy mitts work like snowshoes to help the felids float on top.
On this day in late March, we’re on snowmobiles looking for pawprints. When we find them, we’ll strap on snowshoes and backtrack the animal, recording the sorts of environments and vegetation the animals are using in the wake of big wildfires. Due in part to climate change, more and larger burns are blazing across the west.
We stop, overlooking a mosaic of burnt trees. There’s land that’s scorched dead, partially burnt plots and sections that look totally untouched by the blaze. Lamar says we’ve passed lots of tracks along the way, but no lynx quite yet.
"We had coyote, we had snowshoe hare, a lot of snowshoe hare tracks, we had a short-tailed ermine, which is one of our smaller weasel members, and squirrel tracks.
A lot of snowshoe hare tracks are a good sign that lynx will be in the area.
Lynx populations go up and down with the abundance of these hares. They make up about 95 percent of lynx diet. And climate change is affecting these animals too; their camouflaging coats become mismatched with the landscape as snow melts earlier in the season. Warming temperatures are also causing good habitat to shift higher in elevation and shrink up, to the north.
But Lamar calls the area we’re in now a snowshoe hare factory. And their tracks are everywhere.
We hop back on the snowmobile, fingers crossed for some fresh lynx tracks.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has designated more than 10,000 square miles of critical habitat for lynx in Montana, and the Forest Service is supposed to consult with that agency on how its plans and projects might affect the animal’s recovery.
What we’re doing today will become part of the emerging scientific backbone that helps managers figure out how to balance the uses of the forest for both lynx and people.
Up high on a snow-covered winding road, we spot those characteristic big, wide pawprints. The animal meandered along the trail for a while before cutting off into the dense forest.
Lamar straps on a bright pair of snowshoes.
"It’s our one piece of nice gear, our snowshoes."
He also pulls out a GPS unit to take coordinates.
"So, right now we are gonna backtrack a lynx and see where it leads us."
This produces fine-tuned data. As we wind through the trees, snow slopping down our shirts, we’re looking at things like: What kinds of trees and vegetation is here, and how big is it? If it’s burnt, how much is it regenerating? How dense is the forest?
The hills here are patchy with a variety of forest types: thick, dense trees, short, young growth.
"When you have that mosaic or that mix of everything; once a forest grows out of good lynx habitat, you have other early successional forest coming online," Lamar says.
So the forest here is set up well for the future of lynx, in part because of the fires that have blazed through.
Lynx are shy and smart and exceptionally hard to come by in the wild. Before we left, the guys shared with me a video of a lynx on Nature Conservancy land. The cat is standing on a hill. It looks out towards the camera making what the guys think is a lynx mating call.
"When you go out tracking you just never know what you’re going to see, right? It’s the luck of the draw," says Steve Kloetzel, western Montana land steward for The Nature Conservancy. TNC owns much of the land on which Lamar and Mayernik speed around atop their snowmobiles.
"It’s always exciting when you see your first lynx track and you know that’s what that is and you get to follow it and see, you know, what did they chase? Did they get a snack?"
On a map, the land here looks a bit like a quilt, each patch with a different owner. We’re on mostly Nature Conservancy property bought from Plum Creek Timber Company. But there’s state, federal and tribal land all around us. It complicates managing animals like lynx. They don’t abide by property lines or forest boundaries.
"Turns out the Seeley Lake country is some of the best Canada lynx habitat in the lower 48," Kloetzel says.
So players from agencies of all kinds, both public and private, are collaborating to figure out how best to take care of the forest.
In January of last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service said lynx in the lower 48 are ready to be removed from the endangered species list. They haven’t formally proposed it yet, but if they do go ahead with delisting, measures must be in place to show the species won’t near extinction for the foreseeable future.
So Kloetzel says it’s really important to figure out how best to manage the landscape in ways that support both the wildlife and humans that frequent it.
"We do want to know what habitats they’re using, especially in the realm of climate change. That has thrown a wrench into a lot of what we knew about rare forest carnivores. Because when you have large landscape burns on the area, you might have large areas of severe wildfire that really impact the habitat."
Wildfires are a natural part of the landscape, but climate change means they’re happening more often and with more intensity. The fire season is 78 days longer now than it was in 1970. And warming temperatures also mean earlier snowmelt and drier vegetation. But it’s also due to a century of a strict Forest Service policy of putting out fires, which created dense, overgrown stands ripe for gigantic blazes.
"You might say, well, if we can’t maintain them on the landscape here, then do they have a shot anywhere in the lower 48?" Kloetzel asks.
All this data from following lynx around the backwoods near Seeley Lake will build on Forest Service research that started two and a half decades ago.
"At the time, there was very little known about lynx," says John Squires, a U.S. Forest Service Research Wildlife Biologist, in his office at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Nick Mott: What’s in this jar that says "lynx" on it?
"[Laughter] Yeah, well that is lynx scat. We use genetics to figure out how the animal relates to other animals in our study areas," Squires says.
Mott: So you keep lynx poop on your desk?
"We do. I do. It won’t be there for long. But it’s there now."
Squires looks at the complicated relationship between how humans and lynx use our forests. Right now, he’s working with Swan Valley Connections’ Lamar and Mayernik to focus on the impact of wildfires on lynx.
He takes their fine-grained tracking data and adds it to GPS and radio information from the cats his team captures and collars — over 150 total over the years. It creates a high-definition picture of how these animals behave.
The work he’s doing can mean a lot for planning timber harvests, and the kind of landscape lynx need to thrive.
"It’s a species that’s been litigated a lot over the years in terms of its impact on forest management, and we’re trying to provide basic data to say, well, how do we find solutions to these issues."
Endangered Species Act protection can mean time, money and lawsuits over timber permits and forest plans. Some say that protection creates an environment in which forest projects are sued to death.
"Lynx are disproportionately on these lands that are for timber production," Squires says.
A lawsuit filed last month against the Flathead National Forest alleges the forest didn’t adequately take into account how its new forest plan, released in December after half a decade of deliberation, would affect the habitat of lynx, along with other rare creatures in the area.
Senators Tester and Daines have both introduced Congressional legislation to overturn a different controversial federal court decision based on lynx management.
Squires says, "The question is, how do you intelligently manage a forest in a way that provides lynx habitat in sufficient quantities so the species maintains, but also is in this actively managed forest that also provides other forest products?"
So they’re a species of particular concern for both environmentalists and the timber industry. Analyzing patterns over the years, he says managers could potentially even figure out how to use forest thinning to improve habitat.
"We’re convinced that lynx are compatible to a multi-use philosophy of land management."
So as the climate warms, here in the Seeley-Swan scientists and forest managers are honing their answers to questions like: How and where do we cut down trees? Where do we put in roads and let people recreate? What sorts of landscapes do we want to promote?