“Many of us have been predicting that over the long term this species would be lost from most of its southern distribution,” said Dennis Murray, a professor of biology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who was not involved in the study, though he has researched lynx for more than three decades. “Can anything be done? Probably not. We’re probably stuck as bystanders, just watching this happen.”
But having information about the lynx’s whereabouts is crucial for public policy, such as the government’s decision about whether to delist the lynx, said Jeff Lewis, a conservation biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The lynx was added to the list of threatened species in 2000, Dr. Thornton said, because there was no management plan to protect it. Now, there is such a management plan, which is why the federal government is considering the delisting move.
But the same factors reducing habitats in Washington are likely at play in Montana and Colorado, which also have lynx populations as far south as the animals can survive. “The long-term trajectory is going to be a challenging one for lynx across their southern range,” Dr. Thornton said.
Dr. Lewis praised the new study for adding to existing knowledge, but said he’d also like data about the quality of the snowpack in the area, which determines whether snowshoe hares will stay and whether the lynx will lose its competitive advantage over other mid-size cats, like bobcats and coyotes.
“There are substantial unknowns and ongoing threats that play into this,” Dr. Lewis said. “None is encouraging from the standpoint of lynx staying in Washington for the foreseeable future.”
Taking out top predators like the lynx can be disruptive to the entire ecosystem, Dr. Murray said.
“This is really a good example of very wise use of taxpayer funds to help our understanding of how our planet is changing,” he said, “and how we might able to mitigate some of those changes or at least forecast how our planet is going to change, so we know what to expect in the future.”