It’s still winter in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and with three feet of snow on the ground, the only way to get around the Nulhegan Basin division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge is on snowmobile.
In the basin, winter temperatures sometimes fall to -30 degrees, but for dedicated refuge biologists it’s just another chilly day at work.
This past February, two interns (myself included) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts, bundled up and headed north to brave the weather and experience the remote refuge life for a week.
From the rear passenger seat of the zooming snowmobile, half enthralled, half terrified (I was, at least), we saw the expanses of the refuge, covering many miles in a single day.
Stretching over 26,000 acres, the refuge is open for the public to explore during all seasons, either on foot or via a network of groomed snowmobile trails that act as a backwoods highway of sorts.
Through stunning spruce-fir forests we caught glimpses of red squirrels, ruffed grouse, moose and even a lone bobcat as it bounded across the trail in front of our snowmobiles.
At the very southern periphery of the boreal forest, the Nulhegan basin is home to species found nowhere else in Vermont except within these dense northern forests that stretch to meet Canada.
Species like the boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, and even the elusive Canada lynx are sustained by the thick conifers and pristine wetlands that define the boreal forest.
Only one lynx has been confirmed in Vermont since 2014, though the nation’s largest population of lynx resides in the state of Maine. That lone Vermont lynx made its home in the Nulhegan basin.
One of the best ways to identify Canada lynx, especially when compared to similar looking species like the bobcat, is by taking a look at its hind legs and paws. Canada lynx have distinctly long back legs.
Interestingly enough, lynx’s hind legs nearly match the hind legs of their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.
In the frigid north, these long back legs and wide feet allow both species to navigate through deep snow and hunt (or run away) more efficiently.
Here on the refuge, we followed UMass Amherst PhD student Alexej Siren as he tracked snowshoe hare using radio telemetry and camera traps that take photos when they are triggered by movement.
Not only did we get to see the incredible work being done by Service biologists and state and university partners every day on the refuge, we got to learn a thing or two about how to identify different wildlife tracks.
And at the end of a long winter’s day, who wouldn’t want this view from their office?