In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the Natural Resources Council of Maine is partnering with Maine photographer Nathaniel Child on a blog and photography series to highlight some of Maine’s threatened and endangered species and their habitat. This spring, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) was just reintroduced in the Senate. Passing the Act would help protect 370 Maine species including Atlantic Puffins, moose, Arctic char, and Canada lynx, which are highlighted in this blog. Funding from RAWA will help state and wildlife agencies conserve priority habitat.
Fifty years ago in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect imperiled species and help their populations recover. More than 1,300 species have been listed so far, and while many species are still declining, there have been some high-profile national success stories, such as the recovery and delisting of Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. Maine passed its own Endangered Species Act in 1975 and has listed 51 species as threatened or endangered. Thanks to extensive recovery efforts, Maine has not lost a single species since that time and has played a vital role in the recovery efforts of species like Piping Plovers and Atlantic Puffins.While many of Maine’s endangered and threatened species can be hard to find, the Canada lynx is perhaps the most elusive of all. The Canada lynx was listed as a Maine species of special concern in 1997, then federally listed as a threatened species in 2000. A resident of dense spruce-fir forests, it’s entirely possible to walk within a few feet of a lynx and be none the wiser. Despite an estimated 750 to 1,000 lynx roaming Maine’s woods, sightings are incredibly rare, which is why it is known as the “gray ghost.” Loss of foraging habitat is the primary threat to Maine’s lynx population, as the young regenerating forest they prefer matures and becomes less suitable for their main prey, the snowshoe hare. Roads and development that fragment large forest blocks also threaten lynx. Farther north, lynx are common residents of the boreal forest, which stretches across Alaska and Canada and reaches down into a number of northern U.S. states like Maine and Minnesota. In Maine, they are found in the spruce-fir flats of the North Woods and western mountains and have territories covering up to 18 square miles. They are about twice the size of an average house cat, weighing 19-26 pounds and measuring 32 inches long. Unlike their close relative the bobcat, lynx are well adapted for deep snow, with huge, fluffy paws and long legs that enable them to stay on top of the snow as they search the forests for snowshoe hares. In addition to their large feet, their most distinguishing characteristics are their short, black-tipped tail and long, black ear tufts.
With the challenges of finding a Canada lynx in the front of my mind, I set out to the forests of western Maine with a pack full of camera gear in hopes of photographing this fascinating feline as part of this Endangered Species blog series. Even though I knew my chances were slim, I was comforted by the fact that even if I didn’t find a lynx, there’s always something interesting to be seen in Maine’s wild woodlands.My first attempt at finding a lynx in early April was not quite the glorious expedition I had been envisioning. I had gotten a tip about a location where a lynx and her kitten had been seen the week before, so my hopes were high. As I packed my camera gear into my car, I imagined scenes of lynx striding through picturesque snow-covered branches, stopping in the perfect place to allow me to capture a once-in-a-lifetime image. Those hopes were soon dashed as the winter storm that was moving through proved to be an ice and sleet storm, not the fluffy snowstorm I had been wanting.
Determined to make the most of the less-than-ideal conditions, I set out the next morning into a forest of ice-encased branches and sleet-covered snow. Almost immediately, I found a set of snowshoe hare tracks crossing the trail, which gave me hope for better things to come. Snowshoe hares make up the vast majority of a lynx’s diet, so if I was in an area with a lot of hares, the odds were good that it was a favorable area for lynx as well.Snowshoe hares tend to live in forests with a lot of undergrowth to take shelter in. In Maine, this habitat used to be created by wildfire and insect outbreaks that would kill large patches of forest. Now it’s mostly created by logging, especially clearcuts. As the clearcuts regenerate, softwoods like balsam fir and red, white, and black spruce grow to create a dense, even-age thicket of trees that protect the snowshoe hare both from predators and harsh winter conditions. The best habitat for hares and lynx occurs when the regenerating forest is about 15-35 years of age. There are vast areas of forest in northern Maine that fit this description as a result of widespread clearcutting that occurred in the 1980s to salvage trees killed by an eastern spruce budworm outbreak. But what makes for good snowshoe hare habitat however isn’t good for all species. A multitude of species rely on mature forest, which has become scarce in Maine, and the loss of this important habitat due to industrial forestry has negative repercussions on species diversity and abundance. Buoyed by the sighting of the hare tracks, I continued walking down the trail. Flocks of chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches flitted through the branches, and off to one side a Pileated Woodpecker was busy excavating a cavity in an aspen trunk. Farther down the trail, a Canada Jay flew in to check me out for a few moments before disappearing into the forest. But despite the ample bird life, there was still no sign of a lynx. The day continued without any hint of a lynx. I had gotten very excited by some tracks crossing the trail, but closer inspection proved them to be coyote tracks, much to my disappointment. As the sun started to dip behind the trees, I resigned myself to the likelihood that I wasn’t going to see a lynx and set to finding a spot to set up my backup plan: trail cameras.
Trail cameras are an excellent way to search for hard-to-find wildlife like lynx, since they can be left in one place for weeks or even months at a time. The best results frequently come from placing cameras along an established game trail or at “choke points” in the landscape, where features like streams or steep hills funnel animals into a small area. Animals, like humans, prefer to take the easiest way through the forest, so game trails can be a good way to see many different kinds of animals.
I found a promising spot in a patch of good habitat near the edge of a stream. I was equipped with three cameras: a DSLR camera trap and two lower quality game cameras. After carefully choosing a composition for my DSLR, I set the game cameras up to cover more of the surrounding forest. After ensuring everything was working properly, I crossed my fingers and headed back to my car as the late afternoon sun filtered through the forest.
I returned to check my cameras three times over the course of a month. Each time, my anticipation built as I trekked through the increasingly snow-free woods, hoping this would be the time I would see a lynx as I reviewed the images on my camera. I saw snowshoe hare scat pellets, uncovered by the melting snow, scattered all around the underbrush. However, despite the game cameras capturing images containing the nose of a moose, a foraging deer, or a flying squirrel peeking around a tree trunk, my cameras remained sadly empty of lynx.
After my last check of the cameras, I took down the camera traps and loaded them into my pack. I had come away from this challenge empty handed, but I had learned a lot about lynx in the process. I’m hopeful that next winter I’ll be able to return and see the round paw prints of a lynx winding between the trees of a snowy forest. As I zipped up my pack I heard the soft tooting call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the tree above me and looked up to see the tiny owl the size of a soda can on a branch over my head. It stared down at me as if to remind me that there is indeed always something to see in the wild forests of Maine, even if it’s not what you’re expecting.