Science Friday: RMRS Lynx and Winter Recreation Study

Figures show paths taken by backcountry skiers in the San Juan study area, near Ophir, Colorado (top panel) and snowmobilers near Molas Pass, Colorado (bottom panel) recreating in a landscape used by Canada lynx (red dots) in 2012–2013. Graphic: L. Olson
This figure shows the distribution of Canada lynx (as red GPS points) around a ski resort in western Colorado, USA. The lynx locations indicate avoidance of this heavily used area. (Graphic: L. Olson)



I’d like to highlight a very useful study that came across my desk, and thank scientists Olson, Squires, Roberts and Ivan, the funders of the research and the person who did this excellent writeup, and, of course, L. Olsen who did the amazing graphics.

They found that the potential for conflict between lynx and recreationists was lessened by the fact that the lynx, skiers, and snowmobilers divide up the slopes in different ways largely related to the density of forest cover. The use by lynx of areas with dense horizontal forest cover for hunting hares serves to segregate them to some extent from skiers and snowmobilers. Snowmobilers, in particular, are using more open slopes. “We thought snowmobiling might be a big concern, but it seems like lynx aren’t going to be in the areas that they normally use,’ explains Olson. Lynx and skiers, however, appear to share a similar preference for steeper slopes, dense canopy, and patchy forest. Contrary to expectations, however, the researchers found no consistent avoidance of low to moderate-intensity levels of snowmobiling, back country skiing, or packed trail skiing. Lynx exhibited some avoidance of areas with higher levels of motorized recreation and developed ski areas, but not to high-use, backcountry ski trails. “They get a lot of skier traffic on Vail Pass, like the 10th Mountain Division trails that go up to the huts. And there’s no evidence of any avoidance of the immediate trail buffer by lynx,” explains Squires, “They use the area right next to the trail, and they cross the trail, they’re all over the trail. However, despite our study areas including some of the highest levels of winter recreation in North America, Canada lynx and winter recreationists selected different environmental features across landscape that resulted in low overlap with snowmobiling and moderate overlap with backcountry skiing. For example, lynx inhabited forest with higher levels of forest canopy cover than typically used by recreationists. Lynx also modified their behavior in nuanced ways by decreasing their movement rate or increasing time spent not moving, or becoming more active at night, in areas with more high-intensity dispersed recreation.”



  • The GPS tracking data showed that snowmobilers on trails prefer shallow slopes, valley bottoms, and lower canopy cover, while skiers prefer greater canopy cover, steep slopes, and ridges. All types of recreation, however, were driven by presence of snow and access.
  • Lynx have different habitat preferences than snowmobilers and so may be unlikely to frequently come into contact with them. Lynx and skiers, however, both prefer steeper slopes, dense canopy, and patchy forest cover.
  • Lynx do not appear to be as sensitive to low and moderate levels of skiing and snowmobiling as originally thought; instead, lynx modify their behavior to avoid some types of recreation, but appear to be fairly tolerant of non-motorized (skiing) types of recreation.
  • High intensities of winter recreation, such as at developed ski areas, may represent a threshold above which lynx have a difficult time coexisting.


  • Tracking people involved in winter recreation gives important insight into where certain activities may be concentrated, and where the greatest potential is for conflict between motorized and non-motorized types of recreation and people and wildlife.
  • Lower levels of dispersed recreation at the intensities seen at these Colorado study areas appears to be compatible with lynx occurrence.
  • Lynx appear to have an upper threshold of recreation intensity which they can tolerate, and above this level, lynx may be less able to coexist. Managers, then, should keep in mind that developed or dispersed areas with very high use may displace lynx from habitat.
  • Lynx select dense forests with high canopy cover during winter. Forest management that alters tree density could alter how lynx and winter recreationists partition landscapes.
  • It is still unclear how recreation affects other aspects of lynx biology, such as ability to successfully den and raise kittens, and this is an area that requires further research.

2 thoughts on “Science Friday: RMRS Lynx and Winter Recreation Study”

  1. Should there have been a link to the actual study report?
    I’m sure the researchers must have discounted this cause or effect question, but isn’t it possible that lynx would use open areas more if they weren’t full of snowmobilers? It seems like it would be easy enough to have a control area in a wilderness and see if lynx use differs there. But if there’s no food (hares) in the open areas, the cost to lynx of avoiding them would be pretty minimal.


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