North Star Critter Spotlight: Canada Lynx

by Sara Swenson

Get to know one of our two wild cat neighbors that call our snowy state home as we shine this week’s North Star Critter Spotlight on the Canada lynx!  Learn what threats these big felines face in the United States and how you can help the lynx living here in Minnesota.

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Meet the Canada Lynx

  • The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a member of the Felidae family of mammals (felids, or true cats), of the order Carnivora.  There are three species in the Lynx genus of felids besides the Canada lynx: the largest and wide-ranging Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), the critically endangered Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), and the fellow North American (and Minnesotan!) bobcat (Lynx rufus).
  • Canada lynx have thick brown fur, sometimes with dark spots, and a gray to white belly, along with long legs, large paws, and a short stub tail with a black tip.  Their pointed ears have long black tufts at the tips, and their faces are surrounded by a beard-like ruff.  Watch a Canada lynx in the wild!
  • Canada lynx are solitary animals, though kittens will stay with their mother to learn to hunt for their first year of life.  Canada lynx give birth to litters of 1 to 5 kittens and have an average lifespan of 15 to 20 years.
  • Canada lynx live in forests but require a range of forested habitat to provide sheltered spaces for their dens but also to support their prey of choice, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).  Canada lynx prey almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare and do not live in areas where they are not found.  Occasionally they will eat other small mammals or birds when snowshoe hares are scarce.
  • Predators of the Canada lynx include wolves, fishers, bobcats, and coyotes.  Humans can also be a threat, as Canada lynx are not particularly frightened of human activity, as you can see here.

Did You Know?

  • The Canada lynx’s large paws and toes act like snowshoes to help them walk on deep, soft snow, and their signature black ear tufts aid their hearing.
  • Minnesota once had the largest Canada lynx population in the Great Lakes region.
  • The bobcat (Lynx rufus), a close relative of the Canada lynx, also lives here in Minnesota.  It is distinguished from the Canada lynx in several ways, including its shorter ear tufts, smaller feet, and white-streaked tails.  Bobcats are also more elusive and secretive than the Canada lynx, bolting in the presence of humans rather than letting us get a good view of them.
  • Despite the differences between the two species, hybridization between Canada lynx and bobcats has been documented in the wild.  In fact, the first “blynx” was reported from Minnesota in 2003.
  • Canada lynx are so dependent on the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) that their populations fluctuate with the hare’s in 10-year cycles.  The Canada lynx is most likely to be seen in Minnesota after the snowshoe hare population crashes in Canada, driving them south into our state.
  • Canada lynx kittens are adorable.  Take a look for yourself!
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Canadian Lynx kitten. Photo credit: dbarronoss (cropped image)

Minnesota Status

The Canada lynx is listed as a threatened species at the federal level, including the Minnesota population.  Habitat loss and fragmentation is the primary threat to the Canada lynx in the U.S., with climate change representing a long-term threat.  Canada lynx are also vulnerable to being killed by human activities (being shot, hit by cars, trapped, etc.) because of their minimal fear toward humans.

The traditional 10-year population cycles of the Canada lynx, tied to the snowshoe hare population, were disrupted in the late 1990s as the lynx population declined rather than rebounding as scheduled.  This decline has led to their federal classification as a threatened species in 2000 as well as a study from the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) begun in 2003.  In collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, researchers from the NRRI have been studying the distribution, abundance, persistence, and habitat needs of the Canada lynx in Minnesota.  Meet the individual lynx in the study!

A mining project has been proposed by PolyMet Mining, Inc. and is currently going through our state’s environmental review process that will impact the Canada lynx that live within the project area.  The proposed NorthMet/PolyMet project, a copper-nickel mine to be located in northeastern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, would destroy 2 square miles of the threatened Canada lynx’s habitat.  The project is expected to result in local reduction and fragmentation of the Canada lynx population and critical lynx habitat as well as potential disturbance from noise, vibration, traffic, and other human activity associated with the project.  Any restoration of destroyed or fragmented habitat after closure of the mine would take decades.

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Photo Credit: Bethany Weeks

Currently, the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) describing impacts of the project and proposed project alternatives to the Canada lynx and other parts of the environment has been released for public review and input.  Learn more about the project, the SDEIS, and the environmental review process in general on the NorthMet/PolyMet project website.  Learn how to let your comments on the project be heard on the meetings and commenting page.

The Canada lynx is an amazing creature currently going through a hard time in our state.  It needs for us to be aware of how our actions impact its population and future well-being.  Aid research on the Canada lynx by reporting sightings to the Minnesota DNR by email (yvette.monstad@state.mn.us) or by phone (800-234-0054).

Sara C Swenson is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (concentrated in Environmental Education and Communication) and a minor in Spanish.  She has studied biology and conservation in the Galápagos Islands and the effects of tourism on coral reef ecosystems in Belize, is well-versed in Minnesota’s Environmental Review process, and has a longstanding interest in environmental policy and communication.

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