by Joseph Gresser
copyright the Chronicle 9-12-2012
BARTON — The Vermont Trappers Association’s annual rendezvous, held at Roaring Brook Park here Saturday and Sunday, brought out trappers from all over the state. They swapped stories, shopped for lures and scents, and gathered information.
One group spent the day testing their marksmanship with black powder rifles, many of them flintlocks.
In what is Floral Hall during the Orleans County Fair, a man wearing a green Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department shirt stood at a table behind two mounted cats. One, rounded and built low to the ground, stalked with bared teeth. The other, leggy and lean, peered alertly with its big front paws perched on a mossy rock.
The shorter of the pair was a bobcat, the taller a lynx. The man was Chris Bernier, a Fish and Wildlife Department scientist.
A steady stream of trappers waited to speak with Mr. Bernier about lynx, which have been making an appearance in the area.
The cats are more often found farther north, Mr. Bernier said, but Vermont is part of their peripheral habitat. An individual lynx can travel long distances, he said, pointing to a map of Maine. There, a study of radio tagged lynx showed one female roamed over 300 miles, he said.
The lynx is designated by federal authorities as a threatened species. Now that their presence in Vermont has been officially noted, Mr. Bernier said, the state is obligated to protect them, something it would want to do in any case.
Mr. Bernier emphasized that the Fish and Wildlife Department is not planning to put any new rules in place right now. The state does plan to study the numbers of lynx and set a population baseline.
With that tool it will be possible to determine over time whether the presence of the cats is a short-term phenomenon, or if they will be a permanent part of Vermont’s wildlife community.
Mr. Bernier said the study can then be repeated in ten years to see if the lynx population is the same, larger or smaller.
“We don’t want to put regulations in for creatures that might not be here in ten years,” he said.
Most of the best lynx sightings have occurred in Essex County, according to a map that Mr. Bernier brought with him to the rendezvous. But they are seen elsewhere in northern Vermont.
The mounted lynx had been shot in a Newport henhouse.
“Feathers were flying everywhere,” Mr. Bernier said, and in the confusion the chickens’ owner shot to protect his flock without realizing it was a lynx that was raiding the coop. No charges were filed against the shooter.
To one trapper, who wondered what he should do if he accidentally caught a lynx in one of his sets, Mr. Bernier advised, “Take a photo, free the lynx, and call the game warden.”
The trapper looked dubiously at the size of the lynx mount, and said he would be more likely to call the warden first and let him free the trapped cat.
Mr. Bernier told other curious trappers that they’re not likely to see lynx in southern Vermont. The cats subsist on snowshoe hares, he said, and are almost always found near their favored prey.
Lynx favor snowy areas and are well designed for that environment. Mr. Bernier pulled out a sheet of photos showing lynx tracks in the snow.
The oversized paw prints appeared to be less than an inch deep in the powder snow of a Maine woods. Mr. Bernier said he was wearing snowshoes when he snapped the pictures and still was standing in snow up to his waist.
One is most likely to see lynx in the winter. An easy way to tell them from their more common cousin, the bobcat, is by looking at their tails. The lynx’s appears to have been dipped in black ink, while the bobcat’s is dark only on the top. As the bobcat moves, an observer will see its tail flashing white.
Mr. Bernier said the lynx is leggier than the bobcat, but noted that his mount was slimmer than most of its species — hence its ill-fated trip to the henhouse. While lynx will feed opportunistically on mice, rodents and other creatures, they are rarely seen apart from hares, he said.
In Vermont history between the 1700s and the 1960s, only four mentions of lynx show up in the records, Mr. Bernier said. “In 1998 we started getting a spattering of sightings,” he said.
Now fish and game scientists are trying to get a handle on how widespread the cats have become.
Forester Luke Hardt of Irasburg told Mr. Bernier that he thinks he’s seen evidence of lynx in the Albany area. He said he was out surveying a sugar bush and as he returned to places he had flagged he spotted what he thinks were lynx tracks.
Mr. Bernier said it’s quite possible. “Cats are very visual,” he said. It’s very likely that they would be attracted to investigate the pennants blowing in the breeze.
Mr. Hardt encouraged Mr. Bernier to survey Albany and Lowell for lynx.
He expressed interest but said he needs to have access to a large area of land, and get the landowners’ permission to do the work.
Essex County is easier, he said, because of the large amount of federal land and because Plum Creek, a major landowner, is also is willing to allow access to its property.
Mr. Bernier also fielded other questions, many about an entirely different cat — the mountain lion. He said his office is on track to receive about 100 reports of mountain lion sightings in the state, many, but not all, of which are probably accurate.
“If they were all good sightings, we’d be overrun with mountain lions,” he said.
Mr. Bernier said the mountain lion that got killed on a Connecticut highway last year showed that the large cats can be found this far east. He pointed out that DNA testing showed that the Connecticut mountain lion had traveled 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
He said he doubts there are currently any breeding pairs living in Vermont. Were they here, he said, he would expect to see more concrete signs, such as road kill or killed domestic animals.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]