Changing habitat threat to rare species
High in the mountains surrounding the Methow Valley lives a rare wild cat, the Canada lynx. The lynx once thrived in the North Cascades, but today less than 50 are estimated to remain and the species is threatened with extinction by a growing and devastating threat — megafires driven by climate change.
Lynx are adapted to living in forested landscapes that historically burned in frequent small fires, creating a patchwork of unburned forests and burned forests at various stages of regrowth. So fire is not necessarily an enemy of lynx, but how are they coping with the relatively new phenomenon of megafires that consume 100,000 acres or more?
That is a question that Home Range Wildlife Research, a local nonprofit organization, hopes to answer in a new research project that gets underway this winter.
“Megafires are not the kind of fires that lynx in Washington evolved with. Instead of creating a patchwork of habitats, megafires affect large areas with high-severity burns … resulting in a homogeneous landscape of severely burned forest,” said Carmen Vanbianchi, research director of Home Range Wildlife Research.
“Furthermore, megafires are burning in rapid succession, so much so that in the past 20 years, much of our Washington lynx habitat has been impacted,” said Vanbianchi, who is the primary investigator for the new research project.
Canada lynx, an elusive, medium-sized cat characterized by tufted ears, is listed as threatened under federal law and as endangered under state law, largely due to loss of habitat from wildfires.
“Wildlife scientists have only a rudimentary scientific knowledge of how lynx use burned habitats, and as a result, they are currently left with an empty conservation toolbox in the face of climate change-driven megafires,” Vanbianchi said.
The new research project, titled “Lynx and Wildfire in the Time of Climate Change,” will seek to fill those gaps in knowledge and present findings that can help guide lynx conservation and forest management efforts, she said. “We want this to be applied research. We want our results to be directly translatable to models and ways forest ecologists plan forest treatments.”
Trap building party, with cookiesInterested in contributing to wildlife research? Roll up your sleeves and join a volunteer work party on Saturday (Dec. 17) to build lynx traps for a new research project conducted by Home Range Wildlife Research.
As part of a study of wildfire impacts on lynx, biologists will capture lynx in live traps this winter and fit them with radio collars. At the trap building party volunteers will help construct 30 box traps with a design that is safe, humane, and effective for capturing lynx.
The work involves cutting and assembling PVC pipe frames and wrapping the frames with chicken wire. The event will take place in the basement of the Twisp Valley Grange from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with a choice of shifts throughout the day. Cookies and coffee will be served. Sign up at volunteermethow.org. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2006, the first modern megafire in the North Cascades — the Tripod Fire — burned more than 175,000 acres of national forest land northeast of the Methow Valley. The fire burned through the heart of the highest quality Canada lynx habitat in the state — a sub-alpine forest of mostly older trees with a healthy population of snowshoe hares, the lynx’s favorite prey.
In 2011, six years after the Tripod Fire, Vanbianchi began working with the U.S. Forest Service wildlife researchers to capture and collar lynx in the Tripod burn area, and in 2013 began her own study of lynx in the area as part of her master’s degree. Tracking the movements of radio-collared lynx, Vanbianchi collected data to show how lynx were using — or not using –— the recently burned habitat.
The new lynx and wildfire project will allow Vanbianchi and her research team to return to the Tripod Fire area to study how lynx are faring as the severely burned forest grows back. She welcomes the opportunity to expand on her previous work, which she said “just began to scratch the surface of our understanding of lynx and wildfire ecology.”
The Tripod Fire area offers a unique research opportunity as a forest that is regenerating 16 years after severely burning. “It’s a perfect study area from the perspective of how much is known about fire ecology and lynx habitat.”
Field work will begin in January 2023 with setting live traps in the Tripod burn area to capture and collar lynx. Using GPS data from the collars, the researchers will track the movement of lynx to understand how they hunt and travel in burned areas, and how they adjust their home ranges in burned forests versus unburned forests.
The researchers will also “backtrack” lynx when they find tracks in the snow, following the tracks in the direction the animal came from to collect detailed data on the burned or unburned habitats that the lynx passed through, and where they successfully hunted. In summer the researchers will set up trail cameras to monitor lynx in the area.
Vanbianchi’s earlier research as a graduate student showed that lynx avoided severely burned areas in the years immediately following a fire, but would seek fireskips — unburned parts of the forest within the larger burn scar.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that after enough years have passed and forests begin regrowing after a fire, as in the Tripod Fire area, the transitional forests may once again support lynx, Vanbianchi said.
Pilot snow tracking surveys conducted last winter in the Tripod area found 57 sets of lynx tracks, including two different females with kittens. In contrast, surveys conducted six years prior found few snowshoe hare tracks and no lynx tracks.
“These observations indicate an increased level of lynx activity within the Tripod burn and that we have an important opportunity to learn what specific burned habitat types and configurations allow lynx to begin using regenerating megaburns,” Vanbianchi said.
To conduct the lynx and wildfire study, Home Range Wildlife Research has received a 3-year grant of nearly $100,000 per year from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The grant is significant for the small independent research organization, which was founded just over a year ago.
“This is huge for us,” said Vanbianchi, who is a co-founder. “When we started Home Range, lynx and wildfire research was on our short list of projects to take on.” Vanbianchi said she has been working with various agencies and scientists “to garner support and start a cross pollination between fire ecologists and lynx biologists — a partnership that needs to develop if we are to save lynx populations in the West.”
The Allen Family Foundation grant has allowed Home Range to hire two wildlife biologists to work seasonally in the field and on the study. Both have previously worked in the Methow Valley as part of the University of Washington Predator-Prey Project, an ongoing study of the impact of predators on other species.
Anna Machowicz, a Home Range co-founder, will lead field operations for the lynx/wildfire research. Home Range is working in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the University of British Columbia, and hopes to hire a graduate student from the university to work on the project, Vanbianchi said. Home Range has also recruited local volunteer trackers to help in the field.
The Tripod Fire area will be the first area of focus, but the study will also be conducted in the Black Pine Basin area, which was impacted by the 2017 Diamond Creek Fire and the 2018 McLeod Fire.
“The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is thrilled to support Home Range Wildlife Research’s important work in the Pacific Northwest, said Lara Littlefield, executive director of partnerships and programs for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “Learning more about how the environment and local species are adapting to the realities of climate change is essential to preserving the biodiversity in our own backyard. We look forward to seeing the results of Home Range’s efforts, and know that their learnings will be invaluable towards preserving the Canada lynx in Washington State.”
Megafires are here to stay as climate change results in longer, hotter and drier summers. On national forest lands in the West, the massive fires are also fueled by a policy of total fire suppression begun by the Forest Service in the 1920s to try to protect valuable timber, Vanbianchi said. In the absence of frequent natural wildfire, western forests, including the North Cascades, have transformed from a historical mosaic of burned and unburned areas into a largely homogeneous swath of mature trees with high accumulations of understory fuels.
“Fire suppression not only disrupted the natural cycle of burning, it backfired. Western forests are now more flammable than ever, and with the added effects of climate change we have entered the era of megafires,” Vanbianchi said.
“Knowing this, we must embrace a paradigm shift recognizing that holding onto remaining unburned lynx area is not possible,” she said.
In fact, saving lynx habitat may require introducing fire to try to try to reinstate the historic patchwork forest composition that many forest ecologists say is necessary to prevent larger fires, Vanbianchi said.
“As contrary to lynx conservation as it may seem to perform fuels-reducing treatments in lynx habitat, we must focus on the bigger picture — taking some lynx habitat in forest treatments will save much more habitat from otherwise inevitable future megafires,” Vanbianchi said.
“We don’t have the option of trying to save lynx by putting out every fire. These forest treatments are not only needed to restore the ecological role of fire adapted forests, but it is the only chance of reining in these megafires,” she said.
Home Range’s lynx and wildfire study aims to address this “conservation conundrum” by providing knowledge about “what burned habitat compositions and configurations are important for lynx use of these landscapes” and how lynx use recently burned and regenerating forests (like Tripod), Vanbianchi said.
“Our research will inform ways to reinstate fire as an ecological process … through forest treatment plans that also integrate lynx habitat objectives and promote lynx conservation,” she said.
The research is timely, she added, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was recently mandated to write a recovery document for lynx as a threatened species. “Our research will provide the [agency] with recovery actions for lynx across their range living in fire-prone landscapes,” she said.