Canada lynx persist in spruce beetle impacted forests, research shows

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Lynx kittens. ©James Weliver/USFWS

Lynx are making good use of some sections of forest impacted by spruce beetles, according to ongoing research.

“The notion before we started the study was that it was possibly not lynx habitat because it’s very different from what we traditionally think of as lynx habitat,” said John Squires about an area in Rio Grande National Forest that was struck by an outbreak of spruce beetles (Dendroctonus rufipennis) in 2013. Squires is a research wildlife biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service and a member of The Wildlife Society.

But his research found that Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) live and produce kittens in certain parts of beetle-killed forests.

Squires and other project collaborators, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Rio Grande National Forest, the Rocky Mountain region of USFS, and Montana State University, trapped and put GPS collars on four cats in Colorado’s Rio Grande Forest so far and will collar more animals in the future. They are also documenting the kind of vegetation in parts of the habitat where lynx live in an effort to better understand the cats’ preferences.

“We’re doing very detailed vegetation plots and forest mapping to look at characteristics of the live understory and the dead overstory,” Squires said

They found that after spruce trees die, young fir trees take advantage of the extra space and sunlight and densely populate in some parts of the beetle-kill area. Preliminary findings show that the lynx like these areas.

The finding is important for land-use managers. If Squires and the other researchers can figure out what kind of forest the cats prefer, they can provide advice for salvage logging that could minimize impacts to lynx.

But the public and agencies want to sell the dead trees. Squires said the study is projected to continue until the end of 2017. While spruce trees can stand for decades after dying in some areas and older dead trees have some commercial uses, logging companies prefer trees that died less than five years ago.

“In general they want to salvage them as soon as they can after beetle mortality,” he said. “There’s some urgency to figure out how to do that while still conserving lynx.”

On a larger scale, Squires said this research is part of his larger interest in seeing how lynx respond to natural disturbance like beetle kills, fires as they relate to climate change.

The U.S. Forest Service is a Premier Partner of TWS. 

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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