Lynx and Wildfire
in the North Cascades
High in the sub boreal forest of Washington’s North Cascade Mountains lives a rare wild cat; the Canada lynx. Today, fewer than 50 lynx are estimated to remain in the North Cascades where they face a growing new threat: climate change-driven megafires.
Lynx in Washington were listed as endangered by the state government in 2016 in large part due to habitat loss from increasing fires, but no recommendations for addressing the issue were developed because very little scientific knowledge of how lynx use different burned habitats exists. Indeed, all foundational lynx conservation strategies are based on lynx habitat research conducted in the 1990’s and early 2000’s at the tail end of the fire suppression era and just before our current megafire era began. During this time, the North Cascades landscape was largely void of burned habitats. Consequently, we have relied on lynx research conducted across the homogenized forest structures that dominated the fire suppression era and have a limited understanding of how lynx use a landscape shaped by fires. Furthermore, lynx researchers have only recently begun to engaged in cross-disciplinary research with fire ecologists to learn what might be done to dampen the effects of megafires and return the landscape to a more historical patchwork with a pattern of smaller, more frequent fires that lynx once thrived on.
This project aims to understand how lynx use burned areas, and collect the information needed to recommend management actions that will create more resilient forests and conserve lynx populations threatened by megafires into the future.
The East Slope of the North Cascades
Located just Northeast of Winthrop, Washington, our study area is comprised of all the area within the boundaries of the 2006 Tripod megafire burn scar.
Objective 1. Discover lynx habitat selection patterns across a diversity of regenerating burned-patch characteristics, burned-landscape mosaic patterns, and across fine, meso, and broad scales.
Objective 2. Determine what burned habitats are used for hunting versus traveling and the amounts and configurations of burned habitats needed to sustain a home range.
GPS Collar deployment
Our crew works diligently throughout the winter to humanely live-trap individual lynx within the study area and apply GPS collars.
When a lynx trail is found, our crew of biologists and volunteers will track the lynx from the direction it came from (i.e. "backtracking") and measure habitat characteristics along the way.
Remote camera deployment
We run a large array of remote cameras throughout the study area and year-round to capture lynx presence.
The first year of the project began with a full-force effort to achieve two specific data collection goals: 1) live-trap and GPS collar at least one lynx and 2) collect information from 15 lynx trails. With the help of our field crew, we were able to meet and exceed these goals!
3 adult lynx live-trapped and GPS collared, including one female with a kitten
20 lynx trails backtracked
Thank you to field biologists Clara Hoffman and Christine Phelan; volunteers Jack McLeod, Carolyn Marquardt, Jan Sodt, Shirlee Evans, and Christine Estrada; Steven Rinella and the MeatEater podcast; and our generous donors from far and wide. The support we received through the Trap-A-Cat fundraising campaign helped us to purchase 2 brand new snowmobiles and make this first field season a success. We couldn't have reached these first-year milestones without your support!
Field work will continue in the summer of 2023!
The pilot year of the Lynx and Wildfire project yielded the discovery of 52 sets of lynx tracks in just 5 trips into the study area. This information confirmed what field biologists have been noticing over the last few years; lynx are returning to the 2006 Tripod burn.
In August, the project garnered support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. This partnership will support the project for the first 3 years of data collection.
In December, community volunteers helped us build 30 PVC style lynx traps at a Trap Building Party.
Thank you to the generous members of our community who contributed time, funds and the equipment we used to conduct this pilot work!
Learn more about lynx in the North Cascades and why this research is urgently needed
For thousands of years, lynx have hunted snowshoe hares in a forested landscape patterned in a rich mosaic of different-aged forest patches. These forest patches were created by small, mixed-severity fires that burned frequently. This fire regime sustained a finely grained patchwork balanced between young-, medium-, and older-aged forest patches, of which the medium- and older-aged forest patches generally supported lynx. In addition, frequent burning also consumed understory fuels such as leaf litter and sticks so that fires burning in one year dampened the size and severity of fires in subsequent years. In this way, the many small fires created a landscape resilient to very large fires, as well as a balanced patchwork of forested habitats to support lynx and myriad other wildlife species. It was within this mosaiced landscape that the North Cascades were once home to the largest of only six populations of lynx found in the lower 48.
Today, fewer than 50 lynx are estimated to remain in the North Cascades where they face a growing new threat: climate change-driven megafires.
Megafires, fires consuming 100,000 acres or more, are caused by the synergistic effects of hotter, drier, and longer summers brought on by climate change and our history of fire suppression. In an attempt to protect valuable timber, the US Forest Service (USFS) began a policy of total fire suppression in the 1920s, and over the next century, in the absence of wildfire, the diverse forest mosaic of the North Cascades transformed into a largely homogeneous swath of mature trees. Gone too was the fire-dampening self-feedback loop as understory fuels began to accumulate. Fire suppression not only disrupted the natural cycle of burning, it backfired. Western forests are now more flammable than ever, and with the added effects of climate change, we have entered the era of megafires.
Megafires are not the kind of fires that lynx in Washington evolved with. Instead of creating a patchwork of habitats, megafires incinerate large areas with high-severity burns that are beyond firefighters’ ability to control, resulting in a homogeneous landscape of severely burned forest. Furthermore, megafires are burning in rapid succession, so much so that in the past 20 years, most of our Washington lynx habitat has burned. The North Cascades forest landscape is now dominated by freshly burned areas that are considered to be of little value to lynx. What’s more, as megafire burn scars regenerate into medium-aged forests usable to lynx, they also age into a forest stage at high risk of reburning. As a result, many recently burned areas may never regenerate into sustainable, high-quality lynx habitat.
As it stands, lynx habitat in the North Cascades is set to continue burning and reburning in our current megafire era. Lynx in Washington were listed as endangered by the state government in 2016 due to habitat loss from increasing fires, but no recommendations or action items for addressing the issue were developed because very little scientific knowledge of how lynx use different burned habitats exists. Indeed, all foundational lynx conservation strategies are based on lynx habitat research conducted in the 1990’s and early 2000’s at the tail end of the fire suppression era and just before the megafire era began. During this time the North Cascades landscape was largely void of burned habitats. Consequently, we have relied on lynx research conducted across homogenized forest habitat that dominated the fire suppression era and have a limited understanding of how lynx use habitat shaped by fires.
Furthermore, lynx researchers are just beginning to engaged in cross-disciplinary research with fire ecologists to learn what might be done to dampen the effects of megafires and return the landscape to a more historical patchwork with a pattern of frequent but smaller fires that lynx once thrived on.
Lynx managers and conservationists have only a rudimentary scientific knowledge of how lynx use burned habitats and are currently left with an empty toolbox in the face of climate-driven megafires. Understanding how lynx use burned areas is a critical gap that must be filled to create management actions that will reinstate the historical fire regime in a way that maximizes lynx habitat.
This project will be the first to address the lack of management actions available for lynx conservation in the era of megafires and presents an opportunity to reverse the downward trajectory of lynx populations in the North Cascades. The current North Cascades landscape of mostly burned lynx habitat presents an incredible opportunity to learn which burned habitats lynx do and do not use. Although our current megafire landscape mostly presents large, homogenous patches of forest structural stages, our study area still contains sufficient diversity of fire intensities, burn severities, and patch sizes that provide an invaluable natural experiment to assess post-fire lynx habitat use. Our project employs rigorous study design and habitat analyses to discover what ages, patterns, types, severities, and regenerating structures of burned forests lynx use.
The focal strategy of this project is to retain the North Cascades lynx population. By providing information for retaining and enhancing lynx habitat in the face of their primary threat, habitat loss due to megafires, this project will contribute to lynx conservation by providing actionable recommendations and tools for retaining and enhancing lynx habitat. Our findings can be applied to lynx populations in the North Cascades and other fire-prone areas of lynx range.