Monitoring the elusive lynx: conservation efforts in Washington state

A lynx waits to be released from a cage in November 2023 in western Okanogan County.

Washington state claims a diverse range of state and federally endangered wildlife, including the rarest of three native cat species, the Canada lynx. With an estimated population of 50–100 individuals, these elusive creatures navigate the high-elevation forests of the North Cascades, primarily residing in the western half of Okanogan County.

Lynx are uniquely adapted to their surroundings, especially during the winter months when they are most active. Their large feet leave distinctive tracks in the snow, which makes tracking them easier for biologists. Their feet, coupled with long legs, grant lynx an advantage in navigating deep snow and finding food, which sets them apart from other carnivores that share their habitat and may prey on the same species.

Look how large a lynx paw is compared to a human hand!

To monitor and conserve this vulnerable species, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently partnered with area non-profit Home Range Wildlife Research with lynx capture efforts in western Okanogan County, both last winter and earlier this fall. Scott Fitkin, WDFW district biologist for the area, assisted Home Range staff with the immobilization and radio-collaring of this species. Capturing lynx involves a careful process to minimize stress on the animal, ensuring their well-being during handling and throughout the life of the radio collar they are fitted with.

A lynx is caught on a game camera at night entering a trap in winter of 2022 in western Okanogan County.

The process involves biologists placing a large, baited cage trap in areas where they know lynx frequent. It is covered with branches and other natural material to camouflage it, then the wait begins. Sometimes it only takes hours but often several days before a lynx will take the bait. Once in the trap, the door is set to close automatically when an animal steps on the treadle, not allowing the animal to leave. Biologists check the trap often to avoid leaving animals in it for very long, and when they catch a lynx, do a complete health workup on it, including a general body condition assessment and checking for any injuries.

Biologists do a health assessment on a lynx (left). The face cover helps to keep wild animals calm. Just like with humans, examining teeth can give an indication of an animal’s overall condition (right).

“Winter is an opportune time for us to capture lynx, since black bears are hibernating, and many other carnivores have largely moved to lower elevations. Also, the snowy landscape provides a canvas for their tracks, aiding with trap placement,” said Fitkin.

To date, this research project has radio-marked four adult lynx. The collars remain on the animal for about a year. These valuable study animals are providing important information that will help WDFW and land management agencies understand how lynx are using the fire-impacted landscape across a gradient of fire scars of different ages. Results will inform forest and fire management strategies to help maintain adequate lynx habitat in the face of growing wildlife risk.

A lynx is released in fall of 2023 after being collared and having a health evaluation in western Okanogan County.

Canada lynx are listed as federally threatened and state endangered and have been designated as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). This classification underscores the importance of efforts to help guide habitat management and aid the recovery of this species. WDFW’s collaboration with Home Range on this effort fosters community engagement and dedicates more resources to the continued welfare of these creatures.

“North Central Washington is one of only a handful of places in the lower 48 states where lynx occur and maintaining our population is vital part of the overall species recovery south of Canada.” Said Fitkin.

Public participation is an important part of this effort. Community members are encouraged to share their observations using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Detailed information, including photos and exact coordinates, enhances the value of these observations, providing valuable insights for species conservation and management.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.