By Joseph Robertia
Russet-colored fur frosted with gray blended near perfectly with the leaf litter and thick underbrush of spring along Skilak Lake Road. Its elliptical-shaped pupils, above long, curved cheek hair, were now locked. Only the swiveling of one of its triangular ears, tufted with black hair, gave away any movement.
Crouching its long, muscular back legs, the animal was ready to pop like a tightly wound spring. Its prey — a snowshoe hare nibbling bark from a willow bush — was completely unaware of the life-threatening danger that lurked nearby. Stealth and camouflage are the hallmarks of a successful predator.
The lynx — Alaska’s only native felid — first heard the rustling of the hare more than an hour before and stalked its quarry to within just a few bounds, completely undetected by its intended dinner. The process was time-consuming, but about to pay off.
In the blink of an eye, the 30-pound cat burst from the brush. With front claws scooping and sharp teeth piercing, its prey succumbed after only brief resistance.
Lynx sightings can be rare on the Kenai Peninsula. Even lifelong residents of the area may only count on one hand the number of times they’ve seen one of these cats. But the chances of glimpsing one of these elusive creatures should improve over the next few years.
“The snowshoes hare population is starting to move toward another cyclical peak, and as their numbers increase, lynx numbers should follow suit,” said Ted Bailey, a retired wildlife biologist who studied lynx with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years.
“Traditionally, the cycle is supposed to be every 10 years,” he said. “But on the Kenai Peninsula it seems to be about every 13 years and is a bit out of phase with the rest of the state.”
More hares mean more food, since they represent the bulk of a lynx’s diet. In some studies conducted during the late 1980s, Bailey said hare remains were found in 66 percent of the lynx scat surveyed in summer, and in 91 percent surveyed in winter.
“When hares are abundant, the lynx population can basically double,” Bailey said. “And even in the low years they’re still taking hares more than any other prey, but they will also switch to red squirrels, grouse, voles and any other small mammals they can get.”
Bailey said lynx have even been known to scavenge on road-killed moose and other dead animals during lean times.
“Their teeth aren’t strong like a wolf’s, though,” he said. “They can’t bite frozen pieces off in winter, so they may have to work on it for a while.”
In low hare years, lynx may also prey on each other and some inevitably succumb to starvation, according to Bailey.
“We tracked one that went from the Swanson River area all the way to Homer and back during a low hare density,” he said. “It eventually starved to death.”
Once winter survival mode of finding prey in snow and ice is over, lynx start devoting some attention toward other things, like mating and rearing young.
Males, which typically weigh between 28 and 30 pounds, are territorial with others of the same sex. But males may share their home range with several females, which typically weigh 18 to 20 pounds.
“They’re not as heavy as they look,” Bailey said. “Their fur is long and thick, which makes them appear larger, but the heaviest we ever weighed was around 35 pounds.”
Kittens begin being born around May to June. Bailey said that, while lynx can have as many as four kittens in a litter, they usually only successfully raise two — and that’s when conditions are good.
“The kittens will stay with them for a while, learning how to hunt,” he said. “I’ve seen family groups as late in the year as December.”
Lynx favor tall forests with dense undergrowth, such as can be found in the Skilak Lake and Swanson River Road areas. They also are occasionally seen near Captain Cook State Park in Nikiski.
In these and other areas, lynx have started to compete with a relative newcomer to the peninsula. Like their domestic counterparts, these cats and dogs tend not to get along well.
“There is interaction between lynx and coyotes, since they live in a similar habitat and feed on similar prey,” Bailey said. “But lynx can climb trees, so as long as they have cover, they can usually get to safety.”
Rather than coyotes, Bailey said humans are by far the lynx’s biggest threat.
“Trapping, hunting and road kills can account for a lot of the deaths in abundant years,” he said.
Liz Jozwiak, a wildlife biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said harvesting lynx from the population isn’t a bad thing, though, when done in correct proportion to the population’s growth.
“Nothing is instantaneous,” she said. “There is a two- to three-year lag time between when the hare population peaks and the lynx population peaks, so care must be given to not overexploit lynx just because we’re suddenly seeing a lot of hare.”
It takes time for the lynx to breed and for kittens to reach breeding age, particularly since, during a low hare cycle, there may be as few as 200 lynx on the refuge, which encompasses most of the lynx habitat on the peninsula, Jozwiak said.
“In a hare high, you could be looking at a four-fold increase in lynx density in available habitat, which calculates out to lynx numbers reaching a maximum of 1,000 at the most on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, not the entire peninsula,” she said. “Yet realistically this number is likely much lower.”
Once this number builds toward a thousand, then a sustainable harvest of the population can occur.
“It’s like a bank account. You don’t want to touch the principal, you want to touch the interest,” she said. “Lynx is the same thing. You want to keep a good base population and harvest when there is a surplus level.”
As the cats fatten up, get healthy and continue to breed, there will be more opportunities to take them in, whether for viewing pleasure or for furbearer harvest, Jozwiak said.
“In another year or two we’ll see more of them,” she said. “That is, those that can be seen. They’re pretty solitary and know how to hide in plain sight. I’m sure a lot of people pass right by them while walking and hiking without ever even knowing there was a lynx there.”