May 05, 2002 11:00 pm
ELUSIVE LYNX: Some believe Canada lynx, like this one photographed outside of Northeast Oregon, pass through Northeast Oregon.  (U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo by Erwin and Peggy Bauer).
ELUSIVE LYNX: Some believe Canada lynx, like this one photographed outside of Northeast Oregon, pass through Northeast Oregon. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo by Erwin and Peggy Bauer).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

What's that shadow moving through the thick forest? A ghost? A bobcat? Or — the elusive lynx?

There have been a few sightings in Northeast Oregon in recent years, but they have not been confirmed, said Forest Service biologist Mark Penninger.

"There have been about eight or 10 by hunters and some Forest Service people — not enough evidence to say for sure," Penninger said. "Do lynx live here? They are likely transient."

The higher elevations of Northeast Oregon could offer habitat for Canada lynx, he said, and he does not rule out the likelihood that the cats pass through the area. Lynx like to make dens in downed logs. Penninger said that no dens have been found in Northeast Oregon in recent years.

"There's not much data on den sites, but there is one common element — downed logs," he said. "That they need old growth habitat is not supported by the facts. Lynx have been found in clearcuts with lots of downed logs."

Two environmental groups claim that the Forest Service is not doing enough to protect the rare animals. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Hells Canyon Preservation Council of La Grande has joined the Oregon Natural Resources Council in claiming that the Forest Service failed to follow the legal requirements to set up habitat for a species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The lynx was listed as threatened in 2000, and Brett Brownscombe of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council said the Forest Service management plan, written more than 10 years ago, should be amended to account for new information about the lynx.

The legal action stops two timber sales in the La Grande Ranger District, the Little Bear and Sandy Bottle sales, both in the Catherine Creek area, where the Forest Service plans restoration. Timber sales in the Baker Ranger District will also be affected.

Brownscombe said he suspects that the lynx does not permanently live in Oregon, but may pass through Eastern Oregon as it moves from one area to another.

Canada lynx may be moving south, since logging in Canada has caused the animals to lose their traditional homes, Brownscombe said.

"One of the tough things is to find out how many; there is no general consensus," he said. "But we need to ensure that viable habitat exists."

In 1993, there were some confirmed sightings in Harney County, "all in non-habitat areas," Penninger said. "That indicates travel."

Penninger, who mapped the possible lynx habitat in Northeast Oregon forests, said he believes the mapped area is large enough to accommodate lynx.

But Brownscombe disagrees.

"Existing Forest Service plans don't provide for recovery," he said. "We need to do something about the lynx habitat. It can't be dismissed," he said.

Penninger said that the lynx maps are based on science, including the research of several scientists published in "Ecology and Conservation of Lynx in the U.S."

Lynx habitat is most often 4,500 feet above sea level or higher, and the cats live in subalpine fir or lodgepole pine. Sometimes they live in mixed conifer forests adjacent to subalpine fir, Penninger said.

"They like forests with a 200-year fire interval, stand-replacement fire," he said.

After a fire, very dense lodgepole grows, good habitat for snowshoe hare, the lynx's favorite food. A two-year lynx survey that used snares baited with hair and fur in the Wallowa-Whitman Forest turned up no lynx, Penninger said.

He said, however, that two or three years of data collection are not enough to say that lynx do not live in an area.

"I'm more comfortable saying that there may be some," he said. "We may conclude that they don't live here, but a few may come through from time to time."