Sunday, March 15, 2009

Scientists hope lynxes' odds improving in Washington State

Scientists hope new data brightens odds of saving lynx

By K.C. Mehaffey
World staff writer
Posted March 14, 2009

LOOMIS — Hodge, a Canada lynx, brought his wildlife biologists a gift this winter: a year's worth of data telling them exactly where he's been since last winter.

Scientists now know more about this lynx and his movements than any ever studied in Washington, thanks to his radio collar, which has registered more than 2,400 GPS locations, recording the data by satellite every four hours.

Researchers hope that the knowledge they get from Hodge and other lynx will help preserve the state's largest population of this rare and threatened species.

The 1,000-square-mile swath of state and federal land spreading west from Loomis and Conconully and including parts of the Loomis State Forest, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Pasayten Wilderness, once provided some of the best lynx habitat in the lower 48 states.

But massive wildfires — most recently the 175,000-acre Tripod Fire in 2006 — consumed half of the lynx's usual stomping grounds here. Scientists now worry this shy 20-pound predator with giant paws may not survive the decades it will take for many of thousands of blackened acres to turn green again. Three years before Tripod, the Farewell Creek Fire burned 67,000 acres. Other smaller fires and clear-cuts on state lands have left a patchwork of temporarily unusable habitat for lynx.

"Once an area is either burned or harvested, it may take 15, 20 or 30 years for good habitat to return for snowshoe hares," which are key to lynx survival, said Gary Koehler, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientist who is leading the lynx study.

Koehler said he'll need more than the data from one lynx to get a clear picture of the habitat requirements that these animals need in the remote mountainous regions of northern Okanogan County.

He and other biologists are trying to determine exactly where lynx spend their time, so they can protect what remains of Washington's best lynx habitat during this critical time.

Koehler said in addition to the 1,000 square miles of lynx habitat in Okanogan and part of Chelan counties, there's another 500 square miles split between the Kettle Range in neighboring Ferry County, and in the northeast corner of the state, in Pend Oreille County.

Estimates of how many lynx live in Washington's best lynx habitat have never been reliable, but Koehler — who has studied Okanogan County's lynx for 20 years — said there are likely only half as many as there were two decades ago. The important thing now is to make sure the lynx that remain can continue to access the areas they're using, or have a secure path to other temporary habitat so they can again flourish when new trees push through the ashes, and when snowshoe hare repopulate the young forest.

"Hopefully, they will recover... . But that's not a guarantee," Koehler said. "We just don't have the reservoirs of lynx habitat to assure us that they will come back."

Lynx are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In late February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 39,000 square miles of forest in six states as critical habitat for the species. That includes 1,836 square miles in Chelan and Okanogan counties — all on federal land in the North Cascades. Koehler said this critical habitat apparently includes the many valleys and lower elevations in the same swath of land where lynx don't actually live, but which they may need to travel to get to new habitat.

It doesn't include any of the Loomis State Forest, partly because the state Department of Natural Resources is already doing more than the federal government would require to protect the cat there, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bryon Holt.

But some say areas to the east, like the state forest and the Kettle Range, just to the east of that in Ferry County, are now more important and could become critical to lynx displaced by the Okanogan County fires.

Biologists say although the wildfires are largely to blame for the fragmented habitat, a massive burnout is natural in any lodgepole pine forest, and over time, fire actually rejuvenates the land so it's better habitat for snowshoe hare, and therefore, lynx.

"Large fires have always been part of this landscape," Koehler said.

But now, with logging and other large wildfires just to the north in Canada, lynx may not have a nearby place to live while the burned areas recover.

"It raises the question of whether we ought to be leaving that area to nature, to species like lynx," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting old-growth forests and other wild areas in Washington and Canada.

The Loomis forest is managed by the DNR to make money for the state's school trust fund.

Ten years ago, Friedman's group fought to get 25,000 acres of the forest set aside for wildlife and recreation. It used Canada lynx as its fundraising campaign logo. And, Friedman said, it was largely this distinguished cat with black tufted ears that convinced 6,000 Washington citizens to dole out nearly $17 million to keep about one-sixth of the 134,000-acre forest free from logging. That protection is important to lynx, he said. But some of the preserved areas are now blackened, and more protections may be needed to save the lynx.

"Anything we do up there is compounding risks," Friedman said.

Lloyd McGee, procurement forester for Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. in Colville, said although some areas are now restricted from logging because of lynx, that hasn't stopped logging in the area.

The company's mill uses smaller diameter wood, often found at higher elevations where lynx live.

"The Loomis State Forest is a very viable place for us to purchase timber still, as long as the market is good enough to cover the haul costs," he said. Right now, the company is not buying timber because the market for lumber is so poor. But the company hopes that will change in the spring, or at least by the end of this year.

McGee doesn't expect critical habitat designations for lynx will change where or how the company will log in the region. He said state and federal agencies have already identified areas needed for lynx, and have very specific guidelines about what kind of logging practices are allowed in and around the the areas they live.

"We support protecting lynx habitat," he said.

Koehler said past logging in the Loomis State Forest has added to the lynx's piecemeal habitat today. But, "Right now, the DNR has really stepped up to the plate and is taking this seriously," he said. "They are identifying mostly that supplementally good hare habitat and saying, 'We're not going to cut these areas.'"

Scott Fisher, regional biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources in Colville, said he works closely with his agency's timber employees to find and identify which areas can continue to be logged, and which should not.

"It would be a crying shame to lose the Washington population of lynx," he said, adding, "We're doing everything we know to learn about them and make sure they're still around in 30 to 40 years."

K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512


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