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Lynx Tracks sighted in Yellowstone National Park!

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Tracking a lynx can be every bit as tricky as landing a front-row seat at a high-end fashion show.
By Jean Tang


Two years ago, the news made local headlines in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Tracks were found inside Yellowstone National Park — and scientists thought they might belong to a lynx. The lab findings came back affirmative.

For much of the 20th century, environmentalists had been off their watch, allowing lynx — highly coveted for their thick spotted fur — to become endangered. But to the north, the beautiful animals — Alaska’s only native cats — still thrive, and this particular one may have traveled south over a diminishing land corridor to get to Yellowstone.

When the news first hit, spotting a lynx was something unheard of in the mountains of Montana. Now, the possibility of seeing one — or, more likely, its tracks — has turned into a recreation that’s equal parts placid and thrilling.

The lynx looks a lot like its more common cousin, the bobcat. Lynx have bigger feet, longer legs, plainer grayish bodies, and what one biologist described as a jacked-up rear end. Unlike bobcats, which eat mice, squirrels, and ground-dwelling birds, lynx subsist almost entirely on snowshoe hares, whose wide, densely furred feet — great for treading snow — are similar to their own. So what do trackers look for? Giant cat-prints with indistinct toes.

Betsy Robinson and her husband, wildlife biologist Steve Gehman, lead occasional tours for private clients around Yellowstone, assisted by GPS units.

“Yellowstone is the best place in North America to watch wildlife — coyotes, mountain lions, red foxes,†says Robinson. “Even better than Alaska. We’ve watched grizzly bears nursing their cubs. We’ve watched wolves playing with sticks like they were toys and hassling a bison for fun.â€

Yet Robinson has never been fortunate enough to see a lynx.

“We’re tracking a lynx; that doesn’t mean we’re going to see a lynx,†says Margi Huber, field-trip director for the Maine Audubon Society. “They’re very elusive. So we keep groups small.â€

In Alaska, lynx are more plentiful. Howard Golden, wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says that when lynx reach the peak of their density (which happens about once every 11 or 12 years), they’ve been seen wandering in the streets of Anchorage.

If one is lucky enough to spot a lynx, the dangers, Golden thinks, are minimal. “Lynx are really kind of curious,†he says. “Like a lot of cats, their reaction is not to bolt but to stop and watch.â€

He laughs, pointing out the irony: “A lot of times you get a good look at them as they’re sort of watching you.â€

In order to participate in this unusual activity, you can join a tracking expedition (Huber leads one in northern Maine every February) or you can customize your own. Customized expeditions can be arranged year-round. In warm weather, more ground can be covered, but that ground can be muddy. In winter, snow becomes the tracking medium — which adds to the beauty but makes the going a little tougher. Watching from a minivan is one possibility. Another is hoofing it in the backcountry — on snowshoes or cross-country skis fitted with goat’s hair, which acts as a brake against a downhill slide in the wrong direction.

“The fun is relative,†says Robinson, who estimates that a five-mile climb wears most people out. “It’s a lot of work. It can be really cold. Most people aren’t used to the conditions. And it’s not always clear what you’ve found.â€

If this sounds like your idea of a good time, contact an outdoor specialist such as Off the Beaten Path (http://www.offthebeatenpath.com/) or call the local department of fish and game for tips on where to go or how to hire a naturalist.

If you’re looking to go farther afield, London-based travel-writer-turned-tour-operator Jonny Bealby takes adventurers to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, in the Caucasus Mountains on the border of the former Soviet Union. Bealby’s nine-day group tours (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) — on which one treks through lush forests up to heights of 6,500 to 13,000 feet — combine the region’s most luxurious accommodations with homestays.

Hello Kitty
Want a more permanent way to enjoy wildlife, minus the hazards? Adopt a pixie-bob. That’s what breeders call a centuries-old strain of domestic animal similar to a housecat but with bobcat ancestry, markings, and features, from its tufted ears to its short, spotted tail. Pixie-bobs are gentle and clean but have breed-specific traits you won’t find in any housecat. According to Sharleen Horne of Expressive Pixie Cattery (360-653-2580; http://www.pixiebobs.com/), the pixie-bob is uncommonly intelligent, with a large, muscular body weighing between 8 and 22 pounds and covered with short, woolly fur that feels vaguely wild. It’s fiercely loyal to humans and can therefore act as a guard cat — one that can also be trained to walk on a leash and fetch! So feel free to put your snowshoes away until winter.
post #2 of 2
This is so exciting! I just hope that the lynx stay safe (and out of the crosshairs of guns!), wherever they roam!
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