I had never actually looked at the historic range for the Canada lynx, and I was more than a little shocked to find this map from the National Geographic Society.
They were here!
I then came across some analysis that claims that Virginia was within the cats’ historic range, but this may be slightly in error.
When the lynx where here, this region was within the Commonwealth of Virginia, which became the union state of West Virginia in 1863. Virginia, in case you didn’t know, was busy trying to be part of another country in 1863.
One must keep in mind that the distinctions between Canada lynx and bobcats were not as clearly defined as they are now. I have come across sources that talk about a lynx in Texas, which most obviously was the bobcat.
The two cats are actually quite closely related and can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. They very rarely do so in the wild, because bobcats are much more aggressive with each other than Canada lynx are.
Contrary to what you may have read, Canada lynx are not necessarily larger than bobcats either. The bobcat varies much more in size, and many bobcats, especially in the subtropical parts of the South, are quite small animals, only weighing around 10 to 15 pounds. However, the biggest bobcat on record was much larger than this. It was shot in Marinette County, Wisconsin, and it weighed over 48 pounds. The Canada lynx is usually in the 18-25 pound range. The northernmost bobcats are generally larger than Canada lynx. The reason why people think they are much larger is that Canada lynx have much longer legs than a bobcat. Longer legs and thicker fur give the illusion that the Canada lynx is the same size as a mid-sized dog.
Besides human depredations and habitat loss, there are several reasons why the Canada lynx isn’t found in much of the United states anymore. Bobcats are much more adept at killing large prey than Canada lynx, which is a snowshoe hare specialist. Snowshoe hares aren’t as widespread in the East and Midwest as they once were. In West Virginia, there are fears that snowshoe hares could become very rare in the near future, and if lynx and bobcat were to ever compete, the lynx would be much more tightly regulated by snowshoe hare numbers. Bobcats, being the generalists of all generalists, would be able to take other prey.
But even at that, I can tell you that my grandpa actually saw a Canada lynx while turkey hunting.
He told me it was the size and color of Norwegian elkhound. He initially mistook it for a dog of that belonged to someone he knew in that area. The cat probably didn’t weigh as much as an elkhound, but they are about the same height at the shoulder. If the lynx had been thickly furred, it would have contributed to its elkhoundish appearance. Elkhounds are not cats with short tails, and they lack the very large tufts on the ears, which also would suggest that this animal was not a bobcat.
My grandpa was always very clear that it wasn’t a bobcat. Bobcats are relatively common in this part of the world, and the main color phase of the bobcat here are very thickly speckled. At at distance, Canada lynx appear almost pure gray in color.
What was it doing in West Virginia?
It could have been from a relict population, but this is unlikely. There are no snowshoe hares in the part of the state where he encountered it, and if one were to ever find native lynx in West Virginia, it would almost have to be found in prime snowshoe hare territory.
These cats do disperse a long way from their mother’s territories– especially young toms. It is possible that one from Canada or the Great Lakes states could have wandered down.
But I think it is much more likely it was one that had originally been kept as a pet and then released into the wild.