Too few to trap
Elusive critters like fishers and wolverines are nearly impossible to find in the wild. Across the entire Rocky Mountains, each species numbers fewer than 300 individuals. But that doesn’t stop trappers from trying to snare a few in Montana each year for their own personal collections.
Fishers and wolverines are mid-sized carnivores that lead a very solitary existence in remote alpine forests in the Rocky Mountains. They reproduce slowly, often taking many years to find a mate and raise their offspring. Now global warming is making life more difficult by shifting their range and shrinking the amount of viable habitat. So preserving as many individuals as possible is essential for these species’ long-term survival.
The latest trapping report from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks indicates that nine fishers were killed this year, even though the statewide quota was just seven animals (one district went over its quota by three). Three wolverines were caught so far this year out of a statewide quota of five, and the season remains open in one district. Seven swift foxes were also harvested, out of a total statewide quota of 20.
Trapping is a relatively minor threat to these species, and state wildlife agencies typically set quotas low enough to ensure the long –term survival of species. But there are so few fishers, wolverines and swift foxes that continued trapping can have a noticeable impact, especially when quotas are exceeded.
Protecting lynx and wolverines
Trapping isn’t always a bad thing, however. Nonlethal trapping is an essential tool for researchers who want to know how animals behave in the wild. It can be extremely difficult to track the movement of individual animals without trapping them first to put on a radio collar or other tracking device, especially very rare critters like lynx and wolverines that live in remote alpine areas.
Wolverines were recently put on the candidate list of endangered species because of long-term threats to their future. Canada lynx are already protected as a threatened species and therefore no longer trapped or hunted in the contiguous United States. But there is still much to learn about both species that will help improve conservation efforts and guarantee their survival.
Don’t miss this fascinating story about lynx in the February issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Join writer Abigail Tucker as she trudges through the Garnet Mountains of Montana with a team of researchers, hot on the trail of the elusive lynx. In cases like these, animals are not harmed when they are trapped. Being able to study animals in the wild helps answer essential questions about their conservation status and needs. Here’s a short excerpt:
“The chances that we’ll trap and collar a lynx today are slim. The ghost cats are incredibly scarce in the continental United States, the southern extent of their range. Luckily for Squires and his field technicians, the cats are also helplessly curious. The study’s secret weapon is a trick borrowed from old-time trappers, who hung mirrors from tree branches to attract lynx. The scientists use shiny blank CDs instead, dabbed with beaver scent and suspended with fishing line near chicken-wire traps. The discs are like lynx disco balls, glittering and irresistible, drawing the cats in for a closer look. Scientists also hang grouse wings, which the lynx swat with their mammoth paws, shredding them like flimsy pet store toys.”
“If a lynx is enticed into a trap, the door falls and the animal is left to gnaw the bunny bait, chew the snow packed in the corners and contemplate its folly until the scientists arrive. The lynx is then injected with a sedative from a needle attached to a pole, wrapped in a sleeping bag with plenty of Hot Hands (packets of chemicals that heat up when exposed to the air), pricked for a blood sample that will yield DNA, weighed and measured and, most important, collared with a GPS device and VHF radio transmitter that will record its location every half-hour. “We let the lynx tell us where they go,” Squires says. They’ve trapped 140 animals over the years—84 males and 56 females, which are shrewder and harder to capture yet more essential to the project, because they lead the scientists to springtime dens.”