By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A Canada lynx has been documented in Idaho for the first time in over 15 years when the imperiled cat was inadvertently caught in a foot-hold trap in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, state wildlife officials said on Tuesday.
"It's a very rare occurrence," Tom Keegan, regional manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said about the incidental capture last week of the high-elevation, forest-dwelling cat.
He said a man walking his dogs spotted the lynx on Thursday in the rugged mountains of east central Idaho in a legal trap set for bobcat and notified state wildlife officials. They released the animal unharmed.
The last lynx confirmed in the 4.3 million-acre forest surrounding Salmon was in 1991, when one was accidentally trapped. The cats were documented elsewhere in Idaho during the 1995-1996 trapping season, after which trapping lynx was outlawed.
Lynx were designated in 2000 as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species in the lower 48 states, where they roam the high country from Maine to Washington and south through the Rocky Mountains.
The animals have long legs and large, well-furred paws, making them highly adapted for hunting in deep snow for preferred prey like snowshoe hares, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Lynx are infrequently sighted. Biologists mostly rely on tracks and scat to document the reclusive animal's presence.
Fewer than 100 lynx are believed to roam the mid- and high-elevation forests of Idaho, where they are classified as a "species of greatest conservation need."
Just 40 lynx have been recorded in east central Idaho since the late 1800s, according to Fish and Game.
A DNA sample collected from the recently captured cat will be analyzed to verify it is a wild lynx and to gain knowledge about its possible origins, Keegan said.
Like wolverines and other elusive forest carnivores, lynx can travel long distances, even hundreds of miles, he said.
Keegan said it was too early to say whether the lynx found in the Salmon-Challis forest was a sign of the animal's return to its historic range or if it was a random event.
"There's all kinds of speculation. It may be a transient animal or a resident animal," he said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)