Over 1 million readers this year!

Rare wildcat documented in Yellowstone region for first time in decade

A lynx clings to a conifer in the southern Gros Ventre Range in February 2022. (Jason Reinhardt)

By Mike Koshmrl

WyoFile has acquired a photograph of a lynx in Wyoming, a landmark observation of a species currently considered absent from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Star Valley resident Jason Reinhardt, an avid houndsman, came across the animal while mountain lion hunting the southern Gros Ventre Range in February 2022. There was no doubt in his mind what it was: a tom lynx, judging by its blocky head.

“When I saw it there was no reservation about what I was looking at,” Reinhardt said. “It was up close, very clear and I didn’t need an anatomy lesson to know what I was looking at. Bobcats look very different, they don’t have feet the size of salad plates.”

The lynx was spotted in the upper reaches of Tin Can Park, a backcountry swath of the Bridger-Teton National Forest about six miles southeast of Granite Hot Springs. 

Unbeknownst to Reinhardt at the time, it had been many years since a lynx was documented in Wyoming.

State and federal biologists have long been searching for lynx in Wyoming, with no success confirming their presence. The records suggest that breeding, resident animals disappeared more than 20 years ago. There were a host of documented lynx sightings between 2004 and 2007, but those were GPS-collared animals that had been reintroduced into Colorado before they dispersed north into the Equality State, according to Heather O’Brien, a nongame mammal biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. 

“I think the last verified observation was in 2011 or ‘12,” O’Brien said. 

There’s a Wind River Range sighting in the system from 2014, she said, but in the notes it shows “eight lynx,” which is “pretty weird,” and that observation is considered unverified. 

John Squires, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, was a part of the effort to keep tabs on the last Wyoming resident animals. At Game and Fish’s behest, he came down to the Wyoming Range to trap and collar the last known animal, a male, in 2000 and again in 2001. 

“That was the only animal we could find in the Wyoming Range at that time,” Squires said. “We believed it was the only animal left. There was a female present with that male — she had kittens in 1998 and 1999 — but that animal died before we got there.” 

The northern Wyoming Range in November 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Reinhardt’s 2022 sighting doesn’t indicate lynx are breeding in Wyoming again. It could have again been a dispersing animal passing through. Nevertheless, it’s important.

“That’s what I do,” Squires said, “so it’s highly significant to me.” 

Its location in the Southern Gros Ventres didn’t shock the research biologist. Squires partnered with Game and Fish retiree Bob Oakleaf on a 2005 that identified a lynx corridor in the area. 

“They go through that same spot right there,” he said, “through Bondurant and up into that Green River country.”

Basically gone

Currently, some federal planning documents classify lynx as “functionally extirpated” — meaning extinct from a specific area — from the tri-state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That’s the description used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a December 2023 “species status assessment.” Lynx have been managed by the federal agency under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened” in the Lower 48 since the turn of the century. 

The ESA classification precludes lynx hunting and trapping and it has land management implications — including in places where lynx haven’t been consistently present, like the Bridger-Teton National Forest. 

“We have to follow the Northern Rockies lynx management direction,” said Randy Griebel, the forest’s acting deputy supervisor. “It’s pretty extensive — there are a lot of standards and guidelines associated with that — even though we don’t really have lynx per se on the forest.”

Lynx are classified as “functionally extirpated” from the Greater Yellowstone area, unit number 5 in this graph. Although lynx are absent or barely hanging on, the region’s lynx habitat projects to hold up better than any other area as the climate warms. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Bridger-Teton holds what’s considered the state’s best lynx habitat on the east slope of the Wyoming Range. That region was a focal point of an extensive multi-jurisdiction 2015 to 2017 survey.

“It was a massive effort, with Jason Wilmot leading the charge,” Griebel said. “A lot of money, lot of effort: Over 4,000 miles of snowmobile track surveys, 54 cameras, 230,000 individual pictures.”

“We just could not find a lynx track on this forest,” he added 

It’s possible lynx were never present in large densities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

A lynx passes by a game camera near Alaska’s Tok River in 2016. (USFWS)

2021 habitat modeling study concluded that the region contains much less high-quality lynx habitat than previously thought. Only about 10 percent of the region is now considered capable of supporting resident lynx. 

Good lynx habitat is essentially good snowshoe hare habitat, because the large-pawed, pointy-eared cats depend on the forest-dwelling hares. Substandard habitat basically means that the landscape doesn’t support enough hare to sustain lynx. In the absence of adequate hare numbers, lynx can hang on, but just barely, Squires said. 

“They try to survive with alternative prey, mainly red squirrels,” the research biologist said. “But they really don’t breed. It gets them through the troughs, but they require a certain hare abundance to be reproductive. We think it’s about half a hare a hectare [~2.5 acres].”

Historic boom

Trapping records hold evidence of lynx in Wyoming going back to the 1920s, Squires said. There are also indications that the lynx that persisted into the 2000s may have been residual animals from an early 1970s population explosion of snowshoe hare in the northern boreal forest that sent lynx numbers skyward, causing them to disperse to new regions.

“Eighteen lynx were legally trapped in the Wyoming Range between 1971 and 1972,” Squires said. “During that 1970s time frame, lynx were observed across the Dakotas, in Wyoming … in Montana’s Pioneer Range.” 

Even though Wyoming doesn’t harbor widespread high-quality lynx habitat, there are “small pockets” of the Wyoming Range with “very high” hare densities. The male Squires tracked in the early 2000s, hopped around and hit these “honey holes.” 

Around the time lynx went missing, the 2012 Fontenelle Fire ripped across more than 100 square miles of the Wyoming Range’s eastern flanks — the best habitat in the state. 

The 2012 Fontenelle Fire burned through much of Wyoming’s highest-quality lynx habitat in the Wyoming Range. Red marks the scar from the blaze. (NASA)

“That took out a big chunk of the habitat,” Squires said. “We know from our old past research that it takes 30, 40 years before [fire scars] become pretty decent lynx habitat once again.” 

Although Squires was “super interested” in Reinhardt’s observation, he wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, being a single animal. 

“It’s important to understand that we don’t know where that lynx came from,” he said. “It probably came from Colorado would be my guess, but who knows?” 

If that’s not the case — and it was a homegrown Wyoming lynx — O’Brien and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department might be about to find out. 

Evidence of persistence?

In anticipation of the Fish and Wildlife Service updating its recovery plan for Lower 48 lynx, the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming cooperated on a comprehensive survey of lynx habitat.

“It’s basically an identical design to what [the three states] did for wolverines, but we’re not using bait,” O’Brien said. “Instead, we’re using lure dispensers and a camera and a visual attractant. It’s literally just a compact disc on a swivel — something shiny — because cats like lasers.” 

The locations of the 23 camera traps were determined by the 2021 study that concluded there was less lynx habitat in Wyoming than previously thought. The cameras were placed in the nooks and crannies the models suggested are the highest-quality habitat, according to O’Brien. Essentially, that means the Wyoming Range, which is just across Highway 191 from where Reinhardt spotted the lynx in early 2022. That’s where 21 of the 23 cameras were deployed.

There are no results yet, but there will be soon. 

“We won’t know until we collect those cameras and start sorting through images,” O’Brien said. “They’ll be picked up as soon as they’re accessible after snowmelt, so in June and July.” 

Lynx tracks mark the snow in the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. (USFWS)

Fish and Wildlife’s lynx recovery plan is still in draft form and isn’t yet complete. But the draft of the document suggests that the federal agency is viewing Wyoming and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a potential “climate refuge” for a species predicted to struggle and lose habitat as the planet heats up. 

Federal biologists estimate that there are roughly 2,000 lynx south of the Canadian border, with easily the largest remaining population residing in New England. But under a middle-of-the-road climate change projection, that lynx habitat essentially disappears: 80% of it vanishes by 2040 and 99% is gone by 2060. 

The Yellowstone region, meanwhile, is expected to retain over 70% of its habitat — however small and devoid of lynx it is today. Southern Colorado also projects decent in the models, retaining 57% of its lynx habitat, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service species status assessment. Although these two regions hold up best, there is “uncertainty,” based on historical data, whether they can “support persistent lynx populations,” the document states.

Fish and Wildlife’s recovery plan proposes spending $31 million over the next 20 years to help lynx persist. Some of the conservation measures are targeted at Wyoming and southern Colorado, including maintaining and enhancing habitat connectivity to facilitate lynx dispersal. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.