In Eastern Washington, the Canada Lynx Makes a Comeback

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are determined to rewild their lands

By Ben Goldfarb

June 28, 2022

A gray lynx walks over snow toward the camera.

An endangered Canada lynx from the Mission Mountains in Montana photographed remotely at a winter monitoring station set up to track their population. | Photo by David Moskowitz

On a winter afternoon, Jarred-Michael Erickson, a Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation council member, kneels to unlatch the grated door of an animal carrier. A camo-pattern cloth screens its cargo from the dazzling sun, though I can hear growls and see luminous eyes gleaming within. We're on tribal land high in the Kettle Range, the crumpled mountains that straddle the border of northeastern Washington and British Columbia. To the north, frosted Canadian peaks rise from the clouds like volcanic islands. I stand in deep snow and wait for the critter to cooperate.

Erickson taps the crate wall, and the lynx bursts forth—a flash of mottled fur, long-limbed and huge-pawed. She floats over the snow, the picture of feline grace, seemingly unbothered by the blocky gray satellite receiver she wears on a collar. After she melts into the stunted spruce and fir, she leaves behind only a thread of faint paw prints. We clumsy humans have postholed up to our thighs. She's barely dented the crust.

"The tribes—they just decided to do it, and, bam, they were doing it in weeks."

Canada lynx, once persecuted by trappers and now plagued by habitat loss, are scarce in Washington; Erickson has seen only a single track in his 34 years. In November 2021, in an attempt to bolster the flagging population, the Colville Tribes launched a long-planned reintroduction on their reservation. The cat that I saw dash into the forest, a yearling, was the sixth lynx the tribes have turned loose. They hope to release a total of 50 over the next five years.

"Getting those rare forest carnivores back on the landscape is righting a wrong that was done," Erickson says. "They were extirpated out of here, and that was done to Native people, in a sense. To me, it's personal."

The idea for lynx reintroduction was planted in 2000, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the cat threatened throughout the Lower 48. In the wake of the decision, Conservation Northwest, the nonprofit that first petitioned the government to protect the species, began to lay plans. The group and its partners, including the Colville Tribes, turned their attention to the Kettle Range, a huge block of historic lynx habitat still graced with plenty of snowshoe hares, the lynx's preferred prey. The tribes, which know lynx as wápupxn, volunteered to handle the logistics of reintroduction.

The tribes found a source of cats in British Columbia. Lynx aren't protected there, so Conservation Northwest contracted Canadian trappers to capture the felines, paying more for the live animals than the pelts would have earned. The trappers sedated the lynx and handed them off to tribal biologists stationed in Canada, who fitted the cats with tracking collars and delivered them to the border. There, another team picked up the lynx, drove them high into the Kettles, and let them loose.

"The tribes are very much results ­oriented," says Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest's science director. "With the larger organizations and agencies, there's more bureaucracy. But the tribes—they just decided to do it, and, bam, they were doing it in weeks."

It helps, too, that the Colville Tribes—the 12 Native bands of the confederation, which control 1.4 million acres—have ample experience in wildlife reintroduction. The tribal nation encompasses an astonishing array of habitats, including sagebrush steppes, ponderosa groves, subalpine forests, and a stretch of the Columbia River. Wolverines, cougars, black bears, and wolves stalk the tribes' lands, and, over the past two decades, the Colville have been making their holdings wilder still. In the early 2000s, tribal and state biologists began trapping sharp-tailed grouse—ground-nesting birds nearly extirpated from Washington—in Idaho, Utah, and British Columbia and releasing them on the reservation. Between 2009 and 2012, the tribes captured more than 130 bighorn sheep elsewhere in the state and transported them by helicopter to their lands. And starting in 2017, the Colville obtained and released a total of 150 pronghorn from Nevada. Today, the fleet-footed ungulates are thriving on the sagebrush steppes.

"Tribes believe that all things have their place in nature," says Cody Desautel, the tribes' natural resources director, as we linger and shuffle our feet in the snow after the lynx release. "They're all important; they're all part of a properly functioning ecosystem."

Erickson adds another motivation: "We're subsistence people, so we rely on deer, elk, and moose, along with fish. The ultimate goal of releasing animals is for tribal members to harvest them down the road."

That ethos guides the Colville Tribes' boldest rewilding project: the restoration of salmon. In 2019 and 2020, tribal biologists trucked hundreds of adult Chinook salmon to the water above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph Dams, the massive concrete walls that have long blocked fish from spawning in the upper Columbia River. The tribes released the salmon in a series of ceremonies, conveying them to the water through bucket brigades that allowed tribal members to lay hands on the sacred fish—an experience that Erickson described as "really emotional for our people." In 2021, the tribes counted more than 1,400 salmon fry in the river: proof that, for the first time in nearly 80 years, salmon were spawning in the upper Columbia.

The return of salmon doesn't just have profound cultural significance to the Colville—it also comes with enormous implications for conservation. "This will put more fish in the river for everyone, not just us," Erickson says.

Alas, the lynx that I saw released won't contribute to such ecosystem recovery. Five days after the cat ran off, Rose Piccinini, the tribes' senior wildlife biologist, received a text from the animal's satellite collar. It was the dreaded "mortality signal": The lynx had stopped moving. "It's hard to lose an animal—don't get me wrong," she says. "We have to look at it as we're trying to reintroduce a population, and the success is on a broader scale."

In that sense, the future looks promising. The other eight lynx that the tribes released this past winter are still alive, and while Piccinini thought that a few might wander back to Canada, they've stuck around northeastern Washington. Even better, some seem likely to cross paths during breeding season. With luck, they'll produce the next generation of Colville cats. "We don't expect to have that kind of success in the first year, but it's always a possibility," Piccinini says. "That would be really amazing."

This article appeared in the Summer 2022 quarterly edition with the headline "The Comeback Cat."