PORTLAND, Maine — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is starting a review of federally protected Canada lynx at a time when the largest population of the cats in the Lower 48 appears to be poised for a decline.
The end of clear-cutting in Maine with the Forest Practices Act of 1989 has allowed forests to fill in, taking away some of the habitat preferred by snowshoe hares upon which lynx feed, potentially reducing populations of both species, said Jim Zelenak, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana.
The latest estimates from federal scientists put the number of Canada lynx in Maine at about 500; that's fewer than a state estimate of 750 to 1,000 lynx five years ago.
"There's quite a bit of discussion about what is an appropriate number of lynx to shoot for in Maine," Zelenak said. "That is something we'll talk about in the status review."
The lynx population grew in Maine after clear-cutting — in large part to eradicate spruce budworm — in the 1970s and 1980s created the ideal habitat for snowshoe hares. The pest, largely eradicated today, eats the needles of fir and spruce trees.
Historically, there have been smaller numbers of lynx in New Hampshire, where they're thought to have spread from Maine. There also have been lynx sightings in Vermont.
There's still hope that habitat can be maintained for the hares that provide subsistence to the lynx population.
Federal wildlife and conservation officials have worked with four land owners to manage about 600,000 acres for lynx by cutting 40 percent of the trees, then returning six to eight years later to cut the remainder, said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Maine.
The five-year review, to be completed by this summer, is the first since Canada lynx were declared threatened in 2000. Designations of critical habitat have been made in parts of Maine, Wyoming, Washington State, Montana, Idaho and Minnesota.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will gather the best scientific information to clarify threats that could jeopardize lynx populations; the information will be used in determining whether or not a formal recovery plan is needed, Zelenak said.
Under a separate process, the agency has been working with the state of Maine on an incidental take program.
Animal welfare advocates are renewing their call for tighter trapping restrictions in Maine after two Canada lynx got caught in traps and died. Maine put temporary restrictions in place for a 90-day period, giving state officials time to craft a longer-term solution before the next trapping season begins in late October.