BANGOR (AP) – A new study of the state’s lynx population suggests there are 200 to 500 of the cats in Maine, and that the population is most abundant in new growth in clear-cut forests.

The study, which was conducted this winter in western Maine, could become part of an ongoing court battle between environmentalists and government officials over whether to declare the lynx endangered.

In the first study of its kind in Maine, a team of biologists searched for lynx tracks in 20 townships north of Moosehead Lake in western Maine.

The study is based on a graduate thesis written by University of Maine student Chris Hoving, in which he predicted that lynx would live in young forests with heavy snow. Surveys will be conducted next winter in Eastern Aroostook County, and the following winter in northern Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, which is thought to be the southern fringe of the lynx’s range.

The idea is not totally new, but Hoving put it on paper in detail with maps for the first time, allowing biologists to test the theory. This winter, biologists drove logging roads in each township just after snowfalls, recording the location every time lynx tracks crossed the road.

The biologists drove more than 1,000 miles and recorded about 120 tracks in locations that closely matched the model. Mark McCullough, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Old Town, said if the Hoving model is accurate, 200 to 500 lynx would be expected to live in Maine.

The study, he said, also supports the theory that lynx like new forests – those that are growing out of previously cut forests. The lynx’s ability to survive depends on the availability of the snowshoe hare, a species that seems to prefer dense thickets of spruce and fir trees that tend to grow in 15 to 20 years after a swath is clear-cut, he said.

“The largest threat to lynx is a change in (forestry) techniques,” McCullough said. “We’ve probably gone too far one way in our forest practices.”

Environmentalists, however, say a more natural approach is best for the lynx.

Before the advent of commercial forestry, snowshoe hare depended on regular spruce budworm outbreaks and the occasional fire or wind blast to create small patches of ideal habitat.

Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director for Restore: The North Woods, argues that the natural system could provide plenty of prey for lynx.

“Mother Nature has been doing fine for a very long time,” St. Pierre said. “It doesn’t make any sense to say that you’ve got to ruin a forest to save (lynx).”

Canada lynx are the largest cat in the Maine woods. Lynx weigh about 25 pounds, and have short tails, long legs,and large furry snowshoe paws.

As part of an ongoing lawsuit, a federal judge in January ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide detailed information about the lynx’s “critical habitat.”

The lawsuit was filed by Defenders of Wildlife after federal officials designated lynx populations in the Northern Rocky and Cascade mountains as threatened, while declaring other populations like the one in Maine less critical.

The judge asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide information about lynx habitat and to reconsider its decision based on new data.

Lori Nordstrom, a federal wildlife biologist in Helena, Mont., said western lynx populations were designated as threatened because there was more information about them, Maine data was minimal and lynx hadn’t even been discovered in Minnesota.

Environmental groups, including Restore, argue that the eastern lynx populations ought to be considered separately for an endangered species listing, because the cats are rarer and use different habitat.

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists analyzed the same information and concluded that lynx are sufficiently protected with the threatened listing.

AP-ES-05-08-03 1215EDT

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