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Seldom-seen rulers of their wintry domain, lynx may face new threats. (Ted Wood)

Tracking the Elusive Lynx

Rare and maddeningly elusive, the "ghost cat" tries to give scientists the slip high in the mountains of Montana

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The grizzlies were “probably” still slumbering, we were assured at the ranger station, but there wasn’t much snow on the ground. We unhitched the snowmobiles from their trailers and eased the machines over melting roads toward a drafty cabin where we spent the night.

The next morning, Eggeman and Kosterman zoomed off on their snowmobiles to set the traps in hidden spots off the trail, twisting wire with chapped hands to secure the bait, dangling CDs and filing the trap doors so they fell smoothly. The surrounding snow was full of saucer-size lynx tracks.

On our way out of the park, we were flagged down by a man on the side of the road wearing a purple bandanna and a flannel vest.

“Whatchya doing up there?” he asked, his eyes sliding over the research truck. “See any lions? Wolverines?” He waggled his eyebrows significantly. “Lynx?”

Kosterman didn’t answer.

“I take my dogs here to run cats sometimes,” he confided. Chasing mountain lions is a pastime for some local outdoorsmen, and the dogs can’t typically distinguish between lions—which are legal to hunt and, during certain seasons, kill—and the protected lynx, many of which have been shot over the years, either by accident or on purpose.The scientists worry about what would happen if an unscrupulous hunter stumbled on a trapped lynx.

The man in flannel continued to question Kosterman, who said little and regarded him with quiet eyes. There’s no point in learning a lynx’s secrets if you can’t keep them.

Back in the garnets the next morning, Squires was delighted: snow had fallen overnight, and the mountains felt muffled and snug.

His good mood didn’t last long. When we set out to check the trapline, he saw that a lynx had paced around one trap and then thought better of entering despite the bunny lashed to the side. The cat was a coveted female, judging from the small size of the retreating tracks.

“What a drag,” Squires said. “She checked it out and said, ‘Nope.’ Flat-out rejected it!” He sounded like a jilted bridegroom. He turned to the technicians with uncharacteristic sternness: “The hare’s all wadded up—stretch it out so it looks like a hare! We need feathers in that trap. Wings!”

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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