This summer is predicted to be hot and dry for the Pacific Northwest, and we can anticipate another year of large wildland fires and poor air quality. For a small group of biologists who study one of our state’s three native cats, the lynx (Lynx canadensis), we will watch fire maps the way communities in fire country do. We will be vigilant and resigned to the fact that fate rather than choice may determine our future options.
We are at a crossroads for the future of lynx in Washington. Without action and with enough fire in the wrong places, they may disappear from our state in a matter of years. Significant attention has been directed toward other iconic species under threat. Unlike with the orca, however, the extirpation of lynx could occur in relative obscurity.
Humans have shared mountains and forests with lynx since people first populated this region. This beautiful cat with its enormous, snowshoe-like paws and long ear tufts is symbolic of our region’s natural beauty. Lynx occupy high mountains, remote landscapes and green forests. Trapped out of much of their former range in the 1900s, the lynx has been limited to suitable habitat mainly in the Okanagon and North Cascades, with some individuals also occurring in smaller ranges farther east. The number of lynx that occupy Washington today could fit inside a single light-rail car. As with southern resident orca, the causes for lynx decline are multifaceted. Intensive trapping reduced the population significantly. Continued trapping in British Columbia and ongoing timber harvest haven’t given the species room for recovery. Recently, a decade of increased fire has significantly reduced the amount of available habitat.
Keeping lynx in Washington now will take concerted management action. We know what needs to be done: first, we need to manage fire response and restoration in core areas and protect lynx habitat the way we protect homes from wildfire. Second, we need to put a moratorium on clear-cutting in areas of remaining occupied or potentially occupied habitat for lynx. Third, we need to address connectivity and trapping issues in Canada. Finally, we should re-establish populations in suitable areas and augment small and isolated populations in case fires devastate current lynx strongholds.
Successful lynx recovery in Washington will require funding, political will and some good luck. A well-resourced lynx recovery effort over the next five years would need new funding commitments of about $2.5 million — about the same price as three Seattle homes. Even if we do everything right, we may fail to keep lynx in Washington. Lynx are snow associated and make a living by outcompeting with other species that are less well-adapted to move across and hunt in snowy terrain. Snowpack and climate predictions point to an even more uncertain future for the species in Washington. It is possible that the change we have made to our landscape and the changing climate in this region is too much for lynx to adapt. But that does not mean we should not try.
If we are to choose inaction over action for lynx, it should be because we have considered our options, evaluated the risk, calculated the cost and made a choice. It should not be because we were not aware of this great cat and the potential for its loss, or because the scientific community failed to inform the public of the need for action and investment. Even with action, successful restoration and preservation of lynx in Washington is not guaranteed. There is a real risk of failure, but it’s hard to imagine regret coming from anything other than to simply watch this species disappear from our state. That is not a choice I want to make on behalf of future generations.