By Bob Ferris
There is a concept in ecology known as niche separation. It is basically how two or more similar species have evolved or changed to occupy similar spaces or use similar resources with minimal conflict. If you do not understand the concept, think about common resources in your houses such as sinks, toilets and refrigerators. If all in your household tried to use them all at the same time conflicts would ensue.
The same is true in the natural world and a species’ particular niche and therefore its separation from another species niche can involve through simple behavioral components such as differences in seasonal use or using steep slopes versus flat ones or high elevations rather than low. It can also involve more complex adaptations that work to separate species over time such as hunting styles or even physical modifications such as size or coloration.
With lynx and coyotes there are a lot of differences relating to their dog and cat-ness but one big one has to do with their feet. Lynx have what for them are essentially snowshoes on the end of their legs. Coyotes don’t. So in your neighborhood when dogs chase cats and cats head for high ground like trees where dogs cannot go, this is exactly what lynx generally do in the presence of coyotes—they occupy higher elevations where their big, broad feet give them an advantage. (And I am not in any of this condoning cats or dogs running loose in neighborhoods because they should not for a number of reasons.)
Enter snowmobiles or snow machines. These motorized track-layers—in addition to scaring wildlife and destroying the sweet stillness of deep winter snow—allow people to travel where they would not ordinarily go. But they also create compacted areas in the snow that give coyotes (and in some cases wolves) access to areas where they would not normally be able to travel efficiently. This essentially takes away the niche separation enabled by the competitive advantage of the lynxes’ big feet (coyote feet carry about 4.38 times the weight per square centimeter as do lynx feet).
The Blue Ribbon Coalition and anti-predator folks will quickly deny that these gas-powered sleds are to blame and then call for more coyote control to save the lynx, but they will once again be shirking their own responsibility for impacts and killing the messengers rather than dealing with the real root problem—which as Pogo so apply pointed out a couple of generations ago: We have met the enemy and he is us.
Perhaps one day we will realize the import of Walt Kelly’s poignant warning and do a better job of understanding what is at risk when we take actions. Perhaps then we will un-straddle these noisy monsters and forgo the cheap thrills in favor of winter’s wonderful stillness, the lynx and niche separation. Let’s make that happen.