The upswing in lynx numbers and their greater visibility along the wooded edges of Anchorage seem to have rattled some people, especially dog walkers. I suppose that’s natural, especially if you haven’t before encountered one of these wild cats, and know little to nothing about their behavior.
A surprise encounter with a lynx—which is the usual way you’ll meet one—may become even more disconcerting when one of them sits and stares at you (or your dog) and shows no apparent fear. Or maybe even follows you a while.
All of these behaviors have been reported by local residents lately and gotten wide circulation in both news and social media. But they’re no cause for alarm. Unless, perhaps, you own a tiny dog that wanders far from your side while on a walk in the woods. Such a dog might become an opportunistic meal for a hungry lynx. But even that’s unlikely, especially now when snowshoe hare populations are high.
Those who’ve taken the time to learn the ways of lynx know them to be predatory specialists. The overwhelming majority of the animals they hunt and eat are snowshoe hares. As author and naturalist Dave Smith explains in the “pocket guidebook” Alaska’s Mammals, “A lynx catches prey by stalking and pouncing. If the chase isn’t over quickly, the lynx loses. . . . They rely on stealth to get close to hares, and startling quickness to catch them.”
Because lynx are so dependent on hares, their numbers closely track the cyclical ups and downs of hare populations, which tend to peak roughly every ten years or so, then crash.
As confirmed by local state wildlife manager Dave Battle, hare populations are high in Anchorage and other parts of Southcentral Alaska right now. Anyone who pays attention to animal tracks can similarly verify their abundance: rarely have I seen as much sign of hares as this winter. Their abundance is also revealed by the partially consumed carcasses scattered through local forests. My dog has discovered several on our walks this winter, far more than ever before.
With the hare population so high, lynx numbers too are predictably up.
Because they are forest creatures that rely on stealth, with bodies that are naturally camouflaged for much of the year, lynx can easily escape detection by humans. Add to that their natural wariness of people and the fact that even where common they are normally not abundant, and it’s easy to understand why spotting a lynx is such an unusual and exciting experience.
I tend to think of lynx as secretive animals. In the 38 years I’ve resided in Alaska, I’ve seen them only a half-dozen times, despite thousands of hikes through forested areas. On half of those occasions, the lynx have watched me while I’ve watched the lynx. Every encounter has been special, memorable.
Two factors help account for the recent abundance of lynx encounters: first, their numbers are at a peak or close to it. Second, lynx that share the local landscape with humans and have become habituated to us, because so many people live and recreate in their natural habitat.
That doesn’t mean they are tame, but it does mean they’ve lost much of their wariness of people, much like the bears that frequent the Anchorage area.
Lynx, however, are much less likely to become food-conditioned than bears, because they’re not drawn to human food and garbage; though I suppose lynx might occasionally take advantage of homeowners who keep domesticated rabbits (or chickens) and don’t properly fence them in.
That loss of caution, along with an innate curiosity, helps to explain the fact that, for all their normal secretive leanings, Anchorage-area lynx will sometimes move along the edges of forest and more open spaces, including trails and roads. And sometimes they will stop, sit, and watch while humans—perhaps accompanied by dogs—pass by, occasionally at remarkably close distances. Battle, the state’s local wildlife manager, agrees that’s so and notes that most of the time, we humans have no idea we’re being watched. He, too, says it’s no cause for alarm.
I’ve never had a lynx follow me, as one dog walker has described, but that doesn’t especially surprise me.
If accompanied by a dog, especially a tiny one, I would bring it closer in such circumstances, though I’ve never heard of a lynx attacking a dog as prey. Dogs are much more likely to be attacked and killed by coyotes and wolves.
Still, I can imagine a lynx striking out at a dog in self-defense if it felt threatened, or to protect its young.
I’ve heard faint rumblings that some folks are using the current abundance of lynx and a few unsettling encounters as an excuse to push for a new trapping season. That, to me, is both unwarranted and unacceptable, but the possibility led me to ask Battle about lynx trapping in Game Management Unit 14C, which includes the Anchorage area.
Battle explained that lynx trapping is currently closed throughout the unit, but some areas of 14C are likely to be opened next winter (though not in the Anchorage Bowl) when the lynx population will be at, or near, a cyclical peak and trapping won’t harm the population. Battle emphasizes that decision “has nothing to do with conflicts, it just has to do with managing populations.”
The bottom line for me: The current abundance and relatively high visibility of Anchorage-area lynx is cause for celebration, not alarm, and certainly not more “harvesting” (that is, killing) of local wildlife by us humans. Even when their numbers peak, I wish we humans would leave them alone, whether in the city or backcountry.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.