Colville Tribe releases nine lynx in Washington’s Kettle Range

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Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

In mid-October 1963, a young woman hunting grouse north of Newport, Washington, shot what she thought was a bobcat.

She was wrong. She had indeed killed a Canada lynx, an agile and elusive wild cat native to Washington State. Days later, a Spokane hunter made the same mistake, according to the spokesperson at the time.

“The Canada lynx, considered a relatively rare animal in northeastern Washington, is apparently breeding,” said the 1963 SR story.

These anecdotal reports, while possibly accurate at the time, did not predict a trend. In 1993, the Canada lynx was listed as a state endangered species, and in 2000 it became a federally endangered species, after years of intentional trapping, accidental hunting and habitat loss mainly due to forest fires. western United States, according to a habitat assessment published in 2019. Now biologists estimate that less than 50 of the cats live in Washington.

All of this underscored the importance of a cloudy day in mid-February in the Kettle Mountains.

It was then that Michael Finley, a member of the Colville tribe, opened the door of a cage, letting out a large, disoriented and decidedly unhappy male lynx. Finley was accompanied by tribal biologists and tribal member Shelly Boyd. The animal was the eighth lynx released in the 2021-22 season and the largest. Nicknamed Darwin, the big cat weighed 30 pounds. Darwin remained silent as biologist Ossian Laspa carried him out of the truck. The cage was covered and the assembled participants were asked to be quiet to minimize stress on the animal.

Once the cage was on the snow and the lid removed, the lynx pounded the front of the cage, its strength shaking the enclosure. Then Finley opened the door. Darwin stopped in the doorway and rushed into his new home.

“It’s a missing piece of who we are,” Finley said after releasing the animal. “And it’s linked to the landscape. … Every little gesture counts. Every little gesture has a meaning.”

The Colville Confederate Tribes released nine lynx during the 2021-22 season, each fitted with a tracking collar that will allow biologists to see where they go, where they settle and when – or if – they breed , said Rose Piccinini senior wildlife biologist and project leader. The reintroduction project is biologically and culturally important to the Colville Fish and Wildlife agency, she said.

“The Tribe’s Fish and Wildfire Management Plan aims to reintroduce and restore wildlife populations that have been suppressed or extirpated from reservations,” she said. “It’s always been a goal of our department, to bring the species back and have as natural a landscape as possible.”

The tribe’s lynx reintroduction draws some inspiration from the efforts of Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based conservation organization that relocated and released lynx into the Cascade Mountains. The Cascade Mountains, which stretch north and south from Canada to Oregon, provide extensive lynx habitat and, perhaps just as importantly, provide a connecting corridor between struggling lynx populations in the United States. and the healthier and more robust populations of British Columbia.

“We actively support this effort,” said Dave Werntz, a CNW conservationist who managed its lynx reintroduction program.

These geographic facts partly explain why a 2019 habitat feasibility study identified the Kettle Mountain Range as suitable lynx habitat – with a few caveats. Like the Cascades, the Kettle Mountains have a lot of potential lynx habitat and are geographically connected to lynx populations in Canada.

“This assessment suggests that the reintroduction of lynx to Kettle’s LMZ may be feasible under most but not all of our modeled scenarios and under current conditions (i.e. without addressing climate-related changes),” says the habitat assessment study.

Wildfires devastated lynx habitat in the Okanogan region in 2015. The Okanogan has been a traditional stronghold for elusive cats. Seeing this, the Colville Tribe began to examine the feasibility of capturing lynx in Canada and reintroducing them to the Kettle Range.

This is where Piccinini got involved. After several regulatory and environmental hurdles were removed, the Colville Tribe began working with Canadian trappers in November. Piccinini would spend a month in Canada at a time, logging 14-hour days for seven straight days in search of lynx.

“We don’t see them most of the time,” she said. “Even being up there for all those months and all those hours… I’ve never seen a lynx that wasn’t in the trap.”

Once an animal was captured, a veterinarian would perform a visual examination. Then the animal would be driven across the border to Washington and released at one of two release sites.

“I hadn’t even handled a lynx until I got into this project. It was awe-inspiring, it was humbling,” Piccinini said. “It was a truly amazing experience to see these animals in the wild and then hear their heartbeats as we treated them.

“It’s like a milestone in your career. It’s…a milestone in your life.”

Piccinini and other biologists working on the project know that success is not guaranteed. But the results are promising. Only one lynx died and the animals, after wandering around a bit, seem to be settling in specific geographic areas, which may be a precursor for them to carve out home ranges.

“We have a few males and females that are close enough that they can have breeding events,” Piccinini said.

The outings will continue next year. Piccinini and others hope that one day Canada lynx will breed again in eastern Washington.

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