Where the Wild Things Are: Lynx and bobcats

When two sets of tracks converge in the woods, and only one set leads away, there is little doubt what happened.

While hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail near Government meadows on a sunny November morning, I discovered the unmistakable tracks of a snowshoe hare in the 10 inches of fresh snow  that blanketed the forest floor. The tracks are unique in that the hare’s back feet swing out and front the front legs, so the back prints are actually found in front of the prints from the front feet. So what I saw in the snow around me was a set of print with two deep, angular imprints placed a few inches in front of two smaller, circular prints. The snowshoe hare had ambled through forest, under the brush and over the trail for quite a while. A few dozen yards up the trail, though, I noticed that the tracks suddenly lengthened. The space between the tracks grew, and the imprinted deepened, until finally there was four or five feet of smooth snow between the heavily smeared imprints of the big ‘snowshoe’ prints.

Then I noticed the reason. Coming out of the trees on my left was a set of more subtle tracks. I backed up a few paces and moved off the trail toward these tracks. It looks as though this animal had been moving slowly and stealthily through the forest for some time. The tracks stayed close to tree trunks, and flowed smoothly around obstacles. Following these new tracks toward the trail, and the tracks of the hare, I found a spot where the new tracks seemed to stop. Four perfect imprints in the snow should where the cat had paused and—because the snow was streaked as if it has been swept by a brush, or by the long fur of a bobcat’s belly—crouched down to wait.

I stood next to the small rectangle delineated by the four paw prints and studied the scene before me. Less than five yards ahead of me was the Pacific Crest Trail on which I had been hiking, and in the snow on the other side of the trail were the prints of the snowshoe hare. At this point, though prints were still closely placed—suggesting the hare was still unaware of its watcher. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what happened.

The hare was out in the twilight hours just before dawn to gather in its morning meal. It was browsing through the brush nibbling the last bits of greenery that wasn’t buried by this first, heavy snowfall.  Meanwhile, a bobcat was complete it’s night prowl of the forest, looking for one last chance at a meal before curling up in a sheltered lair to doze away the day. The car appears to have sensed the hare from at least 50 yards away—perhaps it heard it crunching through the wet snow, perhaps it smelled its musk scent. Regardless, it became aware of the hare and instantly shifted into stealth mode, creeping cautiously up on the unsuspecting hare.

When the cat reached the point where I now stood, it undoubtedly could see the hare, but it didn’t attack immediately. This was a savvy hunter. There was no cover between the two animals, so if the bobcat attacked too quickly, the hare might have time to get away. So the cat, paused and dropped down onto its belly in the snow. I have no idea how long the wait was—the story told by the tracks doesn’t include that kind of detail (at least, not in a way that I, with my meager skills, could read) but at some point, the cat attacked. Perhaps it was just waiting until the hare turned its back, or until it was busy chewing on a twig. Whatever it was, something eventually prompted the cat to launch its attack.

From the deep imprints in the fur-brushed snow at my feet, the cat leaped further than I could reach in one long stride (based on later measurements of my longest stride, I’d guess the cat’s leap from a crouched position was about four feet). In just two or three bounds it was on the PCT—again, about five yards from where it launched the attack—and the hare, finally realize it was being hunted, kicked up its own powerful ‘thrusters’ and began to bound away.

The chase was a mere 10 yards long, ending in a yard-wide crater in the snow where the two had merged, and the hare had been overpowered by the sharp teeth and claws of the cat.  Aside from the kicked up snow, there was a bit of grayish-white fur caught in the nearby brush, a small blot of crimson in the snow, and a thin line of red dots in the single departing track. It seems the bobcat, having caught its breakfast, preferred to dine away from the openness of the trail corridor. I considered following the hunter’s track into the woods, but through better of it. Not that I feared a confrontation with the cat—bobcats know better than to tangle with humans, or with any beast that is six or eight times its size. No, I chose not to continue along the tracks because I already had read the story of the tracks, and I didn’t want to disturb the cat, which by now was probably done eating and already curled up and napping.

For me, seeing the tracks of the bobcat and the hare was more enjoyable than seeing the cat itself would have been. The tracks presented me with a story that I could read and enjoy without disturbing the animal. In fact, its unlikely that many of us will ever experience a bobcat or a lynx in any other way. The small cats of our northern woods are elusive beasts which prefer to hunt at night, or during the quiet twilight periods.

Bobcats and Lynx: A comparison

Bobcats and Canada lynx are closely related cats. Both are in the Lynx family (Bobcats are Lynx rufus and Canada lynx are Lynx canadensis) and they share a similar body appearance. Both have tufted ears, a flaring ruff of fur around the face, and a bobbed tail. But the cats, for all their common physical and biological traits, are very different.

Your average lynx or bobcat is about twice the size of domesticated tabby cat. The bobcats weigh an average of 15 pounds (females) to 22 pounds (males) while lynx run about 18 pounds (female) to 24 pounds (male). Both species average about 30 inches in body length, with short (four to five inch) tails. But the lynx stands three or four inches taller than bobcats, on average, due to their longer legs. The lynx is a winter-specialist and the longer legs, extra large feet—up to 4 inches in diameter (twice the size of a bobcats)—and thick paw fur give it an advantage in navigating deep snow. Those broad paws serve as natural snowshoes to keep the cat afloat on, or near, the surface of the snow.

Bobcats are fairly common in Washington state. They live in nearly every county in the state and occupy a broad range of ecosystem types, from old growth forests of western Washington to the desert county of the mid-Columbia River Basin. Bobcats are still legally hunted and trapped in Washington as varmints. That is, there is no set season, and no limit on kill. Their cousins, the lynx, though are far more rare.

Lynx once roamed most of Eastern Washington, from the Cascade Crest to—and over—the Idaho border. But the cats were trapped extensively through the first half of the 20th century. By the 1960s, the lynx population was somewhat suppressed by the trapping efforts, but the lynx population was still big enough to be a viable, stable population. Then came 1970s and the rapid, near-total demise of the lynx in Washington.

Ironically, the lynx eradication was a direct result of international efforts to protect big cats. An international agreement known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was approved by most nations in 1972. This agreement was designed to stop all trade in the rare cats with spotted pelts, namely cheetahs, ocelots, leopards, and snow leopards. But Madison Avenue needed pelts to turn into coats for the jet-setting fashion crowd, so to fill the coat making market after CITES, trappers turned to cats that offered attractive (if not spotted) pelts of thick, lustrous fur. In other words, Canada lynx. Suddenly, after the 1972 international moratorium on spotted cat pelts, lynx pelts jumped in price. Trappers who used to just scrap by were offered more than $500 per lynx pelt. As a result, their as a ‘fur rush’ not unlike the gold rushes of the 19th century. Trappers took to the hills and laid out long lines of traps through the lynx-producing states.

According state wildlife records, two trappers in Washington’s Kettle Range took 70 lynx in just two winters  in the mid-1970s, effectively wiping out that small, isolated population. In Montana, more than 700 lynx were trapped and killed each winter in the early ‘70s. By 1978, though, the number of lynx caught declined rapidly to zero taken each year. The reason? The lynx were no longer there. The population had been decimated simply to provide coats for wealthy fashion mavens.

In Washington’s North Cascades, though, the lynx was dealt one phenomenally lucky hand. When pelt prices blasted up $500 each, the remote lynx habitat in the North Cascades, from the Cascade Crest east to the Loomis State Forest was still mostly roadless and access was extremely limited. In other words, trappers had a hard time getting close enough to the lynx habitat to effectively set their traps. That, combined with the fact that there were still lynx in other regions (such as the soon-to-be-decimated population in the Kettle Range) helped protect the North Cascade lynx. Then, during the 1980’s when prices briefly jumped to $500 or better for each lynx skin, the North Cascade lynx was protected, not by their remoteness, but by the fortuitous timing of a federally-funded study of their population. As part of the study, several lynx in the area were fitted with radio collars, so the entire North Cascade lynx range was closed to trapping.

The result of these two unrelated circumstances, is that the east slope of the North Cascades harbors the strongest, most viable natural population of lynx in the Lower 48. But it needs to be remembered that ‘strongest’ is a relative term. The population is far from strong—it is just stronger than any of the other threatened populations left in the country. Washington’s lynx population numbers just 30 or so individuals, but  the population—though small—seems to be a good reproducing one. Several on-the-ground surveys have turned up pregnant or nursing females among this population, which shows that there is a strong chance that the lynx can survive here with a little help.

The future of the lynx remains clouded. The greatest unknown is whether the few remaining populations of lynx will survive until the political bickering and bureaucratic positioning finally  fades enough for the scientists to do what they know to be right: proactively rebuild populations of this majestic wild cat.

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