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Dog attacks 'not typical lynx behaviour,' says Yukon biologist

It's happened twice in the last couple of weeks in Yukon — someone's pet dog was attacked by a lynx. Government biologist Tom Jung says he's "pretty surprised."

2 pet owners in Yukon in recent weeks say their dogs were attacked by lynx

There have been 2 recent reports in Yukon of lynx attacking people's dogs. 'The most obvious answer is, they're hungry,' said one biologist. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

It's an unusual cat-bites-dog story, and it's happened twice in the last couple of weeks in Yukon — someone's pet dog was attacked by a lynx.

Yukon government biologist Tom Jung says he's "pretty surprised."

"That's not a typical lynx behaviour. I'm sure this isn't the first time it's happened but, you know, these really are specialist predators of snowshoe hare. So to attack a dog is pretty unusual," Jung said.

The first recent incident happened late last month, when two women were out walking their dogs on a trail near Beaver Creek, Yukon. One of the women said a lynx appeared out of nowhere and "grabbed my dog by his face."  The two women managed to pull the cat off the dog and the lynx was later shot.

Then last week, a dog owner in Whitehorse said their pet was attacked in the middle of the day by a lynx in the McIntyre subdivision. The pet owner said a conservation officer happened to witness it, and rescued the injured dog.

Jung says these attacks are surprising, but not terribly puzzling — snowshoe hares are in decline.

"The most obvious answer is, [the lynx] are hungry," he said.

"When the population of snowshoe hare declines, [lynx] have to find something else to eat. And unfortunately, it seems like some lynx have taken to attacking dogs." 

Snowshoe hare populations rise and fall in a multi-year cycle and right now the numbers 'are really dropping quite a bit,' says biologist Tom Jung. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Lynx and snowshoe populations offer a classic study in predator-prey dynamics. They typically rise and fall in a multi-year cycle, tied closely together.

As hares become more plentiful, lynx thrive, until the hare population hits a peak and begins to decline. Lynx numbers then also dip. It's about a nine-to-10 year cycle, Jung says.

"At the peak, the numbers could be, you know, averaged out around three, four bunnies per hectare. But during the decline, it's more like one bunny per 10 hectares. So it's quite a difference," Jung said. 

He says snowshoe hares in Yukon are now in about the third year of decline.  

"So the numbers are really dropping quite a bit," he said.

A diorama at the Royal Alberta Museum illustrates one of the most well-researched predator-prey relationships. (Terry Reith/CBC)

That means lynx will soon be more scarce as well, before the hare population begins to rebound in the coming years.

Jung says it's a dynamic that's been well-studied over the decades, but there's a new concern — the population peaks are not what they used to be.

"We're having weaker peaks. So by that I mean that when they do build up, the numbers don't build up like they used to in the 1970s or the 1980s," he said.

Jung said climate change may be a factor, affecting the amount of food available to snowshoe hares, or there could be other stresses on the lynx population.

"We're not very sure at this time why we have these weak peaks," Jung said. 

With files from Elyn Jones

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