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Crews search for elusive lynx in Utah mountains

A Canada lynx is released in Colorado in 1999. The rarely seen cat is listed as threatened in 14 states, including Utah.
A Canada lynx is released in Colorado in 1999. The rarely seen cat is listed as threatened in 14 states, including Utah.
Jack Smith, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Crews are scouring Utah's Uinta Mountains for signs of Canada lynx, an elusive and rarely seen forest cat.

The survey started earlier this month in remote stretches of Ashley and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache national forests.

Lynx are listed as threatened in 14 states, including Utah. The last time lynx were documented in the state was in 2004, when two wandered over from Colorado.

It's been about a decade since crews last surveyed for lynx in the Uintas, said Paul Cowley, a biologist with the Uinta forest. None were found.

"We felt like it was worthwhile to take a second look," Cowley said.

The latest survey — which will include teams on the ground and in the air — will focus on searching for tracks in the snow and trying to determine whether any are living and breeding in Utah. It's scheduled to wrap up in mid-May.

Lynx are difficult to survey because they prefer snowy, densely forested areas that can be hard to reach for researchers and occur at low densities, said Shawn Sartorius, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Montana who helps oversee lynx programs across the country.

"Even where they're common, they're rare," Sartorius said.

A good estimate for the number of lynx in the lower 48 states is difficult. Sartorius said it's probably in the hundreds but not the thousands.

Lynx like cold conifer forests, typically travel widely and alone and prefer to dine on snowshoe hare. They're distinctive looking with long ear tufts, a bobbed tail and huge paws for moving across the snow.

Colorado launched a reintroduction program in 1999. Several affixed with tracking devices have been documented in surrounding states, including Utah.

Even if lynx are documented in Utah as part of the latest survey, it's unlikely to dramatically affect management of the national forests. Because the cat is considered threatened in the state, management plans already take their protection into account, Cowley said.

The $15,000 survey will include about eight paid scientists along with volunteers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and LightHawk, which will provide air support.

Researchers also are asking for the public's help in notifying them of potential lynx tracks in the mountains.

While they're out, the teams will also search another seldom-spotted forest predator: the wolverine.