Just a single feline hair could answer the question: Are lynx still in Wyoming?
Jason Wilmot stood last week in a Leidy Highlands conifer stand on a still morning examining a strand, but it looked thick — ungulate-like.
Wired to a tree trunk overhead was the hindquarter of a road-killed mule deer. Fine-diameter lynx hair — what he hoped for — it was not, Wilmot said.
“You can tell it’s deer hair because it’s tubular, it’s hollow,” Wilmot said. “Carnivore hair is skinnier than that. I’m confident it’s from the bait.”
So it goes, so far, in Wilmot’s hunt to find the lynx.
The last confirmed occurrence of the mid-sized carnivore in Wyoming was in Yellowstone National Park in 2014. A Wyoming Range observation in 2010 marks the last verified lynx on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
To determine if they’re still here, the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests have teamed with Grand Teton National Park to systematically survey 1.9 million of their acres. Wilmot, a biologist who’s on staff with the Bridger-Teton, is heading the project.
“Are lynx still in Wyoming?” Wilmot said. “People have reported lynx sightings, but a lynx detection [on the forest] with evidence — it’s been six years.
“Lynx are more rare than wolverines,” he said, “which is absurd.”
Famously, the Teton Range currently has a single known resident wolverine, called Jed. Although lynx are the primary subject, two other “mesocarnivores” are also being tracked in the survey: pine martens and wolverines.
The search consists primarily of monitoring baited camera traps and sweeping the forest for tracks. The project stretches from the southeastern reaches of the Wyoming Range north to the border of Yellowstone, then east across the Continental Divide all the way to the East Fork of the Wind River.
All that turf has been divvied up into individually searched “grid cells” that span 25 square miles apiece — about the size of a female lynx home range. Although Wilmot said it sometimes feels like he’s fishing with a coarse net, his odds of finding one of the felines are good.
“Our detection probability is like 90 percent,” he said. Then he paused. “If they’re there.”
The same methods have been tried and tested in Montana, where trackable collared cats roam, which gives him confidence.
At the remote camera site in cell 538, an ensemble of devices designed to attract and detect lynx and other critters surrounded Wilmot.
The deer hindquarter, smeared with a skunky-smelling “call lure,” provided the olfactory attractant. If it draws a lynx in, the cat will find nails protruding from a scratch pad that’s coated in a blend of beaver castor and catnip. Nearer the hunk of venison higher on the tree there were more hair-catching gun brushes.
There were visual stimuli as well. An owl wing hung from a tree on one side of the infrared camera, and on the other side was a dangling pie plate attached to a swivel.
House cat curiosity carries over to the lynx, a thick-coated wildcat that ranges from 18 to 25 pounds. The feline’s snow-adapted paws are similar in size to a mountain lion’s.
“When we find that lynx track, it’s going to be a screamer,” Wilmot said. “It’s going to really stand out — it’s going to have a big fuzzy paw and be floating on the snow.”
The track surveys are the other half of the search.
Counting by snowmobile along an 8-mile route last week, Wilmot and Bridger-Teton volunteer Sarah Hegg tallied 82 squirrel tracks, 35 moose, 86 coyote and fox and 11 sets of weasel tracks. Each of the half dozen marten tracks the duo encountered was plotted with GPS.
The most abundant tracks, by far, were from snowshoe hare. Hegg, who recently wrapped up a master’s degree in ecology, counted 199 sets on the day.
“I love winter tracking,” she said. “In the summer you can’t see what they’re doing, but in the winter it’s right there.”
Because lynx diets are made up almost entirely of hares, their high numbers are a good sign. The makeup of the forest also appeared ideal for lynx: The highlands Wilmot and Hegg combed south of Togwotee Pass were a mix of spruce, fir and maturing lodgepole pine that sprouted after commercial logging in the middle of the last century.
The deep snow that draws snowmobilers to the region is a boon for lynx, too, Wilmot pointed out. It would deter territorial mountain lions, he said, which compete with and can kill their smaller relative.
The second camera trap checked, in cell 514, was also a dud. On this day the cameras, which had gathered images since December, had only snapped photos of moose and of the researchers themselves.
“It’s a good sample — a sample of our effort,” Wilmot said. “So far we’re not finding anything, right?”
The search, in its second year, has scaled up to include 53 remote camera stations and just as many track survey plots. At each site, every six weeks or so, memory cards from the cameras and the bait are swapped out, hair is gathered for genetic testing and predetermined routes are swept for tracks.
To broaden the survey the Wyoming Game and Fish Department plans to add cat scratch pads to a couple dozen higher-elevation camera traps it’s monitoring for a separate wolverine distribution study.
All of the effort — much of it entails simply getting places — demands lots of resources and time. Because of the impracticality of reaching remote camera and track survey sites, wilderness areas have so far been excluded from the survey.
“There’s one site we’ve tried to get into four different times in both directions,” Hegg said. “There’s no groomed trails and we were just getting bogged down the whole time.”
“We still don’t have a camera in there,” Wilmot said.
A cadre of volunteers, like Hegg, and numerous agency partners have made the work possible. Besides the land managers, Game and Fish and the Wildlife Conservation Society have committed resources. The U.S. Forest Service’s National Carnivore Program and the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee have chipped in funds.
Rocky Mountain Research Station biologist John Squires designed the survey, and he has partnered with Wilmot to lead it. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Squires said, is the only part of the United States not contiguous to Canada that has supported lynx in recent times.
A lengthy reintroduction established a population in Colorado in the 2000s, but the species here is still managed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Places like Spread Creek, the Wyoming Range and the country east of Yellowstone Lake are known to have had lynx in the past, Squires said.
Lynx numbers spiked in the 1970s and several times since in Canada, where cat abundance mirrors the ebbs and flows of snowshoe hare population. The ebbs are thought to have pushed many cats south of the border and even as far as Wyoming.
“But there’s evidence of lynx long before that pulse,” Squires said. “They’ve been a persistent part of the landscape.”
In the early 2000s Squires detected a Wyoming Range lynx by backtracking a cat and plucking a strand of hair it had left in the snow. It was the first time he had used that method to secure DNA evidence, he said.
In the current survey Wilmot’s hunch is that it will be backtracking that will produce the first lynx. His aim after that would be determining minimum numbers and distribution.
“If we see a lynx track, we’d change the whole gig,” Wilmot said. “We’ve got to get DNA. We’ll follow the track until we find scat and/or hair in day beds.”
Although an intriguing track has drawn Wilmot off his snowmobile more than once, the impressions left by a padding lynx so far haven’t presented themselves.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Just because no one’s proven otherwise doesn’t mean they’re not in Wyoming.”