Could Prescribed Fires Offer the Best Protection for Washington's Lynx?


WINTHROP, Wash. — On a subfreezing morning in March, Carmen Vanbianchi is crouched in the snow, cramming chunks of roadkill deer into a pouch she calls her meat purse.

She wrenches the zipper closed, then lines up a half-dozen tiny bottles of scent lures — pungent concoctions laced with urine, glandular extracts and mystery ingredients meant to attract wildlife. Some are so skunky, staff at the local post office told Vanbianchi she could pick up her next delivery behind the building.

But when you’re trying to nab Washington’s most endangered native cat, a little stink is the least of your challenges.

Vanbianchi and fellow biologist Anna Machowicz load the bait, shovels and snowshoes onto twin snowmobiles. Revving the engines, they head out to check the line of 37 live traps they’ve been running since February in hopes of capturing and collaring Canada lynx.

I’m riding on the back of Machowicz’s sled, and I’ve been warned not to get my hopes up. They’ve caught three lynx so far, Vanbianchi says, but 9 times out of 10, the traps are empty.

Wildlife managers estimate there are 50 or fewer lynx remaining in a state where the species once roamed throughout the high, northern forests — mostly east of the Cascade Crest, but occasionally on the west side, as well. A recent survey by scientists at Washington State University, using 650 trail cameras, found lynx in only a fifth of their potential habitat in the state. The animals that remain are mostly confined to the mountains of north-central Washington, where their survival is very much in doubt.

Over the past two decades, massive wildfires — fueled in large part by a warming climate, natural weather cycles and a century of fire suppression — have charred more than half the forest in the heart of the lynx’s tenuous toehold. A few more megafires, and biologists fear the population could blink out.

Vanbianchi and her colleagues at Home Range Wildlife Research, a fledgling nonprofit focused on practical solutions for conservation, are undertaking the first detailed studies of how lynx use — or avoid — fire-scarred landscapes. The goal is to identify the types of habitat lynx need and help agencies manage forests to preserve the rare cats. 

Their initial findings suggest an approach that seems counterintuitive: setting prescribed fires in patches of prime lynx habitat. But Vanbianchi says that might be the only way to protect lynx and the forests they depend on. The idea is to re-create the historical mosaic of vegetation types that allowed the cats to thrive while also making it harder for wildfires to grow to gargantuan proportions.

“Crossing our fingers every year and hoping these megafires don’t burn lynx habitat is not a great management strategy,” Vanbianchi says.

We'll be covering about 40 miles today, Machowicz tells me. The high point, Freezeout Pass, is at an elevation of more than 6,500 feet.

The first set of traps is widely spaced and tucked into the verge of a snow-packed forest road. Local volunteers pitched in to help build the contraptions, which are triggered by mousetraps and fashioned out of PVC pipe and chicken wire.

That’s sturdy enough for lynx because the cats are surprisingly docile once captured, Vanbianchi explains, as she adds fresh venison to a trap. She splashes a few drops of scent onto the snow and scatters magenta plumage plucked from a feather boa around the opening of the cage. Some of the traps are festooned with shiny ribbon. One contains a mechanical bird that tweets and spins. Lynx might be wild, Vanbianchi says with a laugh, but, like house cats, they’re curious and attracted to bright, fluttery things.

These slopes northeast of Winthrop were charred in 2006 during the Tripod complex of fires. The blaze persisted for months and consumed more than 175,000 acres — blowing past the 100,000-acre benchmark for megafire status.

“Tripod really shook things up for lynx biologists,” Vanbianchi says. “It destroyed some of the best habitat in the West.”

And it was a sign of more to come.

In 2014, the Carlton complex burned more than 250,000 acres in Okanogan County. The following year set a state record with a million acres torched and a choking pall of smoke that blotted out the sun. The 2020 Labor Day fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties consumed more than 400,000 acres.

“We’re seeing megafire after megafire here in the North Cascades,” Vanbianchi says.

Fire experts say one of the reasons is the U.S. Forest Service’s longstanding policy of extinguishing most blazes. Between 1940 and 2005, the agency stomped out more than 300 lightning-caused fire starts in the Tripod area.

Had some of them been left to burn, the landscape would have been what USFS fire ecologist Paul Hessburg calls a “salad bowl” — a mix of burn scars, grasslands, meadows, mature forests and trees of different ages. The varied vegetation is great for many animals, including lynx. Salad bowls also slow the spread of wildfire, which often stops when it encounters open areas and the footprints of previous burns.

“Our ideal that forests should be wall-to-wall green is actually a fiction,” says Hessburg, who’s based at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Wenatchee. “That patchwork is critical for resilience.”

Lacking that natural patchwork, thick stands of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine were primed for ignition when lighting sparked the Tripod complex. Insect infections worsened by higher temperatures added to the vulnerability.

As a graduate student, Vanbianchi conducted some of the first postfire wildlife surveys in this area. For more than a decade, there was little sign of lynx on the scorched landscape. Then a few years ago, she started seeing tracks again — far sooner than anyone expected.

The reason is a resurgence of lynx’s favorite food: snowshoe hares. Lodgepole pines that sprouted after the fire are now tall enough to clear the snow in winter so bunnies can nibble the needles and tender bark. Lynx generally do best in mature forests, where they also set up their birthing dens. But as many as eight cats are now making a living among these young stands of trees, Vanbianchi says, pointing out hare tracks that seem to lead in all directions.

“This was such a devastating fire, so to see hares and lynx coming back is just so hopeful.”

In fact, despite the dire status overall of Washington’s lynx population, Vanbianchi feels it’s an exciting time for research.

More than 20 years after the cats were listed as threatened nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which proposed delisting them during the Trump administration — agreed in a legal settlement to reverse course and prepare a recovery plan by the end of next year. In Washington, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are in the second season of a five-year project to transplant lynx from Canada to the Kettle Range in the northeastern part of the state, where fur trapping as late as the 1980s drove the cats to near extinction.

Home Range’s project, launched on a shoestring, got a boost recently with a $300,000 grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The late Microsoft co-founder also chipped in $3.4 million in the late 1990s to help environmental groups buy timber rights on 25,000 acres of valuable habitat in the Loomis State Forest, protecting it from logging. Now, the Washington Department of Natural Resources is launching a pilot project to manage other parts of the state forest for lynx and fire resilience.

But studying such an elusive animal remains challenging — and sometimes frustrating. As they check their traps near Winthrop, Vanbianchi and Machowicz stop their sleds frequently to examine tracks, including some that show a lynx circled a cage multiple times, then walked away.

The Home Range team includes an expert tracker who follows the footprints to plot out the animals’ routes, habitat preferences and where they killed hares. The latter is obvious, Machowicz says. There’s blood on the snow, signs of a struggle and guts. “They eat the ears, but they usually leave one foot and a patch of hide.”

She shakes her head. “Who knows why?”

This winter’s trio of trapped animals includes two males and a female whose nearly grown kitten was calling to her from outside the cage. The researchers anesthetize the captured cats, give them a quick physical exam and fit them with GPS collars to track their movements. One male was trapped multiple times after he apparently realized it was a way to get an easy meal.

Today, there’s a brief flurry of excitement when Vanbianchi stops her sled and signals there’s an animal in the next trap. She approaches silently and makes the disappointing ID: It’s a bobcat, the state’s smallest and most common wild feline. (Cougars, or mountain lions, are the biggest and rank second in abundance.)

The researchers raise the cage door, and the cat is gone in two bounds, barely touching the road before it disappears into the deep snow beyond.

Bobcats are fine-looking animals, but lynx are in a league of their own. With their tasseled ears, pointed mutton chops and jacked-up hind quarters, they look like creatures from a Dr. Seuss book. Their paws are wreathed in luxuriant tufts of fur that keep them from sinking in deep snow. In this high country, they rule the winter landscape when other predators flounder or retreat to lower elevations.

When you hold one in your arms, Vanbianchi says, it’s shocking how delicate they feel, like a bird. Under all that hair, most weigh no more than 20 or 25 pounds.

After checking the first traps, Vanbianchi and Machowicz stop in a flat area crisscrossed by a menagerie of animal tracks. Weasels, squirrels and moose all have tramped through here recently, along with bobcats, the ever-present hares and at least a couple of lynx.

Seventeen years after the Tripod fire, the silvered trunks of dead trees still stand on many slopes. But much of the landscape is a riot of green, with young trees 10 feet or higher thickly bunched together. Vanbianchi, who’s collaborating with Hessburg and other fire ecologists, fears conditions might be nearing the point where another big blaze could sweep through this landscape where almost all the trees are the same age.

“That’s why we’re so desperate to get this work out there,” she says. Now is the time to start breaking up the uniform tree cover with thinning or prescribed burns, and zero in on the “sweet spot” for lynx and forest resilience, she insists. “If we don’t do something, it could all just go up again.”

But the Forest Service, which manages most of the state’s lynx habitat, has its hands full with major initiatives to ramp up thinning and prescribed burns at lower elevations, where forests are more fire-prone and people and communities are at risk. Chris Furr, Methow Valley District Ranger for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, says they’re starting work on a restoration plan for the northern part of the valley that could include some lynx habitat — but the planning itself will take several years.

In the meantime, Furr says, he’s been talking with Vanbianchi about a possible pilot project in the Tripod burn to remove trees that are starting to fill in some of the high meadows.

East of the national forest, Washington DNR’s regional biologist Scott Fisher has been collaring and tracking snowshoe hares on the Loomis State Forest in “dog hair” stands of young trees so impenetrable, lynx have a hard time flushing out their prey. There are plenty of hares, and Fisher would like lynx to be able to eat them.

“Lynx need to catch a bunny every other day in order to stay alive,” Fisher says. “There’s no such thing as a fat lynx.”

This fall, he plans a series of experimental thinning operations, which are normally not allowed in lynx habitat. If successful, Fisher says, the treatments should reduce cover for hares, making them easier for lynx to pick off. The thinned forest will also be healthier and less vulnerable to fire.

The amount of lynx habitat in the Loomis is small compared to federal lands and is already occupied with about as many cats as it can support, each with a home range of up to 20,000 acres. “It’s kind of a lifeboat for lynx right now,” Fisher says. He hopes boosting the food supply will enable resident lynx to have more babies — which could disperse into areas where cats are scarce or absent.

Even though lynx appear to have been wiped out decades ago in the Kettle Range, local tribes always have aspired to bring them back, Richard Whitney, wildlife manager for the Colville tribes, says. His dad and uncles used to share stories about encounters with the cats. “They’re like that shadow of the forest,” he says. “You want them out there.”

For the past 25 years, the reservation has managed its commercial timberlands with the cats in mind. “We don’t do continuous, heavy cuts,” Whitney says. “We break up the landscape, keep the travel corridors and only take a certain percentage of the timber.”

The 19 cats moved from Canada in collaboration with the environmental group Conservation Northwest seem to like the results. Except for a couple of lynx that traveled more than 100 miles back to their home territories, the others are staying put and seem to be faring well, Whitney says. The tribe plans to transplant another 30 cats over the next three years.

Biologists discovered a dead kitten near an area where they suspected a female was building a den last spring, which suggests the lynx are starting to breed in their new home.

It's a rare sunny day, and Vanbianchi and Machowicz stop briefly at the pass to take in the view. A trail leads to Tiffany Mountain, more than 8,000 feet high. Vanbianchi points out a few stands of older trees in the distance. They survived the Tripod fire, she says, because the areas had been logged, and the flames skipped over the regrowth.

”Now those patches are dense and particularly good habitat for lynx,” she says. “We think that’s what helping these lynx get back in here as soon as they are.”

On the other side of the pass, the team’s second line of traps is untouched. After resetting a few mechanisms, freshening the bait and moving one cage, the researchers turn back for home, dialing up their speed on the descent.

When I check in with Vanbianchi a few weeks later, she tells me they caught one additional lynx. It was too small to collar and might have been the kitten whose mom was trapped. DNA tests should tell.

With the snow melting at low elevation, the team dismantled the traps by the end of March. They’re now analyzing data, continuing to track their collared animals, and working with fire experts to model forest management strategies and their impact on fire risk and lynx habitat.

They’re also planning for next season.

Vanbianchi wants to nearly double the number of traps and maybe trap again in the fall, instead of waiting for next winter. It’s already starting to warm up in the Methow Valley, adding to her sense of urgency.

“It seems like fire season starts earlier every year,” she says. “There’s so much we still need to learn about how lynx are using these burned landscapes and what they rely on. I just feel like this is information we needed yesterday.”