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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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In the Garnet Mountains of Montana, the lynx is the king of winter. Grizzlies, which rule the wilderness all summer, are asleep. Mountain lions, which sometimes crush lynx skulls out of spite, have followed the deer and elk down into the foothills. But the lynx—with its ultralight frame and tremendous webbed feet—can tread on top of the six-foot snowpack and pursue its singular passion: snowshoe hares, prey that constitutes 96 percent of its winter diet.

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Which is why a frozen white bunny is lashed to the back of one of our snowmobiles, alongside a deer leg sporting a dainty black hoof. The bright yellow Bombardier Ski-Doos look shocking against the hushed backdrop of snow, shadows and evergreens. Lynx (Lynx canadensis) live on the slopes of these mountains, a part of the Rockies, and the machines are our ticket up. We slide and grind on a winding trail through a forest shaggy with lichen; a bald eagle wheels above, and the piney air is so pure and cold it hurts my nose. “Lean into the mountain,” advises John Squires, the leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s lynx study at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula. I gladly oblige, as this means leaning away from the sheer cliff on our other side.

The chances that we’ll trap and collar a lynx today are slim. The ghost cats are incredibly scarce in the continental United States, the southern extent of their range. Luckily for Squires and his field technicians, the cats are also helplessly curious. The study’s secret weapon is a trick borrowed from old-time trappers, who hung mirrors from tree branches to attract lynx. The scientists use shiny blank CDs instead, dabbed with beaver scent and suspended with fishing line near chicken-wire traps. The discs are like lynx disco balls, glittering and irresistible, drawing the cats in for a closer look. Scientists also hang grouse wings, which the lynx swat with their mammoth paws, shredding them like flimsy pet store toys.

If a lynx is enticed into a trap, the door falls and the animal is left to gnaw the bunny bait, chew the snow packed in the corners and contemplate its folly until the scientists arrive. The lynx is then injected with a sedative from a needle attached to a pole, wrapped in a sleeping bag with plenty of Hot Hands (packets of chemicals that heat up when exposed to the air), pricked for a blood sample that will yield DNA, weighed and measured and, most important, collared with a GPS device and VHF radio transmitter that will record its location every half-hour. “We let the lynx tell us where they go,” Squires says. They’ve trapped 140 animals over the years—84 males and 56 females, which are shrewder and harder to capture yet more essential to the project, because they lead the scientists to springtime dens.

As we career up Elevation Mountain, Squires nods at signs in the snow: grouse tracks, footprints of hares. He stops when he comes to a long cat track.

“Mountain lion,” he says after a moment. It’s only the second time he’s seen the lynx’s great enemy this high up in late winter. But the weather has been warm and the snow is only half its usual depth, allowing the lions to infiltrate. “That’s a bad deal for the lynx,” he says.

The lynx themselves are nowhere to be found. Trap after trap is empty, the bait nibbled by weasels too light to trip the mechanism. Deer fur from old bait is scattered like gray confetti on the ground.

Finally, in the last trap in the series, something stirs—we can see it from the trail. Megan Kosterman and Scott Eggeman, technicians on the project, trudge off to investigate, and Kosterman flashes a triumphant thumbs up. But then she returns with bad news. “It’s just M-120,” she says, disgusted. M-120—beefy, audacious and apparently smart enough to spot a free lunch—is perhaps the world’s least elusive lynx: the scientists catch him several times a year.

Because this glutton was probably the only lynx I’d ever get to see, however, I waded into the woods.

The creature hunched in a far corner of the cage was more yeti than cat, with a thick beard and ears tufted into savage points. His gray face, frosted with white fur, was the very countenance of winter. He paced on gangly legs, making throaty noises like a goat’s nickering, broth-yellow eyes full of loathing.

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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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