Canada lynx are uniquely suited for the rigors of life in snowy northern Maine. The furry feline's thick coat, long and lean legs and massive paws allow it to hunt atop snowpack like a cat on snowshoes. But with temperatures predicted to rise in the coming years, the deep snow cover that the lynx depends on may be significantly reduced, eliminating its competitive advantage over other predators.

While the historic range of Canada lynx used to extend throughout much of the northern United States and the Rockies, today the cat is confined to handful of northern states. Northern Maine currently supports the only viable lynx population in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed Canada lynx as a threatened species in 13 states in 2000. As a federally threatened species whose range has already been greatly diminished, this rare wildcat faces a grave threat in climate change.

"It is hypothesized that as the climate warms, the lynx range will recede and move north," said John Organ, chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the Service in the Northeast Region. "Without significant snow cover, Maine's lynx population could be in jeopardy."

"Lynx are uniquely sensitive to climate change based on their physical attributes," said Chris Hoving, Endangered Species Coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. "Their preferred habitat requires at least 2.7 meters of average annual snowfall. If snowfall decreases, there may be almost no suitable habitat in Maine, where the only verifiable lynx population on the East Coast exists."

Just as the success of the Canada lynx is tied to snow depth, it is also tied to the animal's primary food source: snowshoe hare. The Canada lynx is so effective at hunting the widely available snowshoe hare that it has little need to hunt anything else. But as temperatures rise and snowfall drops, bobcats, fishers and other predators may adapt better to the climate changes and availability of other prey, out-competing the Canada lynx in northern Maine.

State and federal conservation agencies are developing strategies to maintain Maine’s lynx population. Part of that includes providing ample habitat for the snowshoe hare.

"As the hare goes, so goes the lynx," said Organ. "Providing guidance to land managers — within the context of larger biodiversity concerns — is critical to the success of lynx and all species."

Chris Hoving says a forest of diverse habitats — those in different stages of succession and in blocks large enough for area-sensitive species — will provide the greatest benefit to all forms of wildlife. While many conservationists focus on protecting large blocks of mature forest, a number of species, including Canada lynx, need large blocks of young forest as well. 

"Managed forests respond less severely to climate change than unmanaged," said Hoving. "Through management, we can reduce the forest's rate of change and soften the blow of climate change to a variety of species."

This story was written by Bill Butcher and Frank Wolff for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is reprinted with permission here.

Photos: USFWS

Rising temperatures and decreased snowfall spell trouble for Canada lynx
Maine facing loss of Canada lynx population as the wild cat and its primary prey, the snowshoe hare, migrate to snowier pastures Maine can no longer provide.