On March 18, the Port Huron Times Herald reported that a rare Canada lynx had been captured on the property of Harbor Beach, Mich. local Joseph McCoy. The lynx was caught in a foothold trap after munching on one of McCoy’s geese. Unharmed, the lynx was picked up and transported by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Howell Nature Center’s wildlife rehabilitation centre. From there, the animal was to be transported to the Detroit Zoo for physical and behavioural assessment.
The lynx’s appearance in Michigan is considered rare as “there’s much less lynx habitat in Michigan,” says Dennis Murray, an associate professor in Trent University’s biology department. Dan Kennedy, the Michigan DNR endangered species coordinator, told the Port Huron Time Herald that the last confirmed lynx in Michigan’s lower peninsula was in Oscola in 1917. And in 2000, the Canada lynx was designated a threatened species in the U.S.
But the sighting is, obviously, not impossible. “It would coincide with the decline of snowshoe hares in the boreal forest,” Murray says.
The Canada lynx’s main habitat is the Canadian boreal forest, stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland, and its primary prey is the snowshoe hare. But the snowshoe hare population peaks and then crashes every 10 or so years, forcing lynx to find new areas with adequate food sources. “Often, [that] is why they wind up in agricultural settings,” Murray says, “where they’re really fish out of water.”
Lynx have been known to travel great distances in search of food. Murray recalls tracking one lynx that started in the Yukon and wound up in Alaska. “It would have gone over a thousand kilometres in about a year,” he says.
There is a small population of lynx in Thunder Bay, Ont. that move back and forth between the Canada-U.S. border into Minnesota in search of food. But Ontario to Michigan is a much less likely route.
Besides the loss of snowshoe hares, Murray says that habitat loss may have also played a factor. “These animals that disperse out of the core areas are probably increasingly susceptible to falling into human hands or succumbing to other sorts of fates, specifically because there’s less habitat once they get out of their core areas.”
Considering the lynx does seem so out of place in Michigan, there’s a theory that it may be a pet released into the wild. There certainly have been stories of people in the U.S. with pet lynx and pet bobcats, Murray says. “But then [people] get sick of them, they get too big, and they toss them out.”
Although the pet lynx fad doesn’t seem as common as it was 30 or 40 years ago, likely due to further restrictions on animal trade, Murray says, some of these released animals are still caught on trail cams or camera traps.
As an example, Murray references a number of free roaming cougars in Ontario caught on camera traps by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The ministry did some genetic testing on the animals, collecting fur and scat. What they discovered was that there was genetic material that was related to what you’d expect to see in animals from South America. It’s “highly unlikely that an animal from South America would be dispersing all the way up to Ontario, but rather, this would have been a released pet,” Murray says.
“Same thing for lynx, I suspect.”