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Lynx family on ski slopes at Lake Louise

“The lynx family has been seen all over the resort, however we aren’t sure if it’s multiple families, or the same family."
Lynx spotted at the Lake Louise ski hill this winter. FACEBOOK PHOTO

LAKE LOUISE – A lynx family is trying to eke out a living at the busy Lake Louise ski hill among skiers and riders this winter.

A species that is typically more active at night, the female lynx and her two kittens have been repeatedly spotted on the slopes during the day.

Last month, the lynx family cut across the men’s downhill run as skiers with the Lake Louise Ski Club were training, while countless others are stopping in surprise and awe as the typically elusive wild cats move around the hill.

“The lynx family has been seen all over the resort, however, we aren’t sure if it’s multiple families, or the same family,” said Leigha Stankewich, the ski hill’s marketing and communications manager.

“We first got some reports earlier on this season.”

Stankewich said skiers are asked to keep at least 100 metres away from the lynx and report any sightings to the nearest lift attendant.

“The lift attendants do keep a report of wildlife sightings and these are given to our enviro team,” she said.

Lynx are usually solitary and seldom seen animals, and like the snowshoe hares they hunt, are mostly active at night.

While there has not been much research on lynx in this region over the past three decades, a study from 1996-98 indicates the Lake Louise area appears to hold important nodes of habitat for lynx.

The research, which covered an area of more than 3,000 square kilometres including Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks and neighbouring provincial lands, found the home ranges of three lynx overlapped in the Lake Louise region.

Lynx breed in early spring, and about nine weeks later, pregnant females den and produce kittens.

Though litters of four to five kittens are typical in the north when hares are abundant, researchers in southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta documented litter sizes of two or fewer kittens.

Kitten survival was also poor despite a slight increase in hares.

Charlie McLellan, acting wildlife management specialist for the Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit, said this seems to indicate the rapid increase in lynx populations during years of peak hare numbers seen in the north does not occur in the south.

“The research shows that compared to the lynx up north, the snowshoe hare here tend to have more stable populations so they don’t have such a big cyclical pulse,” he said.

McLellan said the research showed the lynx diet was diverse, with snowshoe hare making up about half of lynx food.

He said that was followed by red squirrels (30 per cent), northern flying squirrels (five per cent), grouse (three per cent), martens (three per cent), and voles (three per cent).

“The research shows that hare in this area are still 50 per cent of the diet for lynx, so it’s still really important, but we don’t see as a big of a cyclical pulse with lynx and snowshoe hare here.”

In southern British Columbia and Alberta, it is thought that lynx occupy the landscape in loosely connected populations.

Within each population, resident lynx are likely to breed with each other.

Due to the fragmented nature of the landscape and the uneven distribution of snowshoe hare, some populations may produce offspring, while others don’t.

Those that don’t appear to rely on immigrants, usually juveniles, tend to disperse in from more productive lynx populations and reproduce.

According to Parks Canada, dispersers help sustain genetic diversity or may augment a small population.

“Without this steady supply of new individuals, small populations are at risk of local extinction,” states Banff National Park’s website.

In the case of the lynx family at Lake Louise ski hill, McLellan said Parks Canada works with the ski resort to communicate and monitor the whereabouts and behaviour of the carnivores.

“In terms of management, so far I haven’t heard anything concerning,” he said.

McLellan said the primary concern is making sure no one feeds the lynx human food, adding there has been no evidence of that to date, thankfully.

“No. 1 is never feed wildlife,” he said.

“I think the primary concern is any time wildlife are living close to people is if they are fed non-natural foods they could become food-conditioned.”

If the lynx are spotted on the ski hill, McLellan urges skiers and riders to give them space.

“When taking photographs, do not surround them or crowd them and use a telephoto lens, if possible,” he said.

“We want to give them space to move.”

McLellan said he suspects the female lynx’s home range is centred around the ski hill and there is good hunting in the area.

“Some of the open edge habitat, with the runs and then the forest might provide some good hunting opportunities and some good foraging,” he said.

The breeding season for lynx is also underway now.

“Certainly at this time, the males will be moving around more than normal and covering more ground,” said McLellan.

“It seems like the time of year that we often would see lynx more frequently.”

The study, Lynx Ecology in the Southern Canadian Rocky Mountains, was undertaken by Clayton D. Apps, Alan Dibb and Anna J. Fontana. The data was collected from 10 lynx, including three adult males, three females, one juvenile male, two female kittens and one male kitten. They were radio-collared, monitored, and snow-tracked between November 1996 and October 1998.

Family groups found in the study area during winter were associated with small litters of two.

Survival among resident adults was 100 per cent, but three of four subadults monitored during winter did not survive to mid-May.

Home ranges were large, averaging 381 square kilometres for resident male lynx and 239 square km for females.

Researchers found that lynx travelled an average of at least 3.5 km a day, but ranged up to 32 km. However, when hare numbers drop, many resident lynx abandon their home ranges and become transient.

Two juvenile dispersals were short – at 44 km and 17 km – and ended in starvation.

Colleen Campbell, a member of the Bow Valley Naturalists board of directors, said she frequently came across lynx tracks when she was doing other wildlife research in and around the Lake Louise ski hill in the mid to late 2000s.

She said tracks were easy to pick up in winter when snow conditions were good, and in summer she would notice lynx tracks in muddier areas, particularly near the Meadowlark area.

“It was a little highway,” said Campbell.

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