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HADLEY, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The rare Canada lynx, whose range has shrunk considerably in recent decades, faces a grave threat from rising temperatures in Maine, federal wildlife experts said on Tuesday.
The shaggy wild feline whose principal eastern U.S. habitat is Maine, preys on snowshoe hare but may lose out to competing hunters if snowfall decreases in coming years as predicted, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Lynx, bobcats and fishers stalk the same primary food source.
The historic range of the cat, which was listed as a threatened species in 13 states in 2000, once extended throughout the northern United States and Rocky Mountains.
Although its eastern habitat extended as far south as Pennsylvania 100 years ago, today northern Maine supports the only viable U.S. population of Canada lynx east of the Mississippi River, said Bill Butcher, a USFWS spokesman.
The cat's preferred habitat requires at least 2.7 meters of average annual snowfall.
Predictions of warming temperatures, which would result in less snowfall, threaten the lynx, a crafty hunter atop snowpack who is "like a cat on snowshoes" with its furry coat, long legs and huge paws, said John Organ, chief of wildlife and sport fish restoration for USFWS's Northeast Region.
"In 20 or 30 years, there may not be any habitat in Maine for Canada lynx to exist, unless we're able to provide suitable habitats that can support not just lynx but also snowshoe hares," Butcher said.
A warming trend would force the lynx out of Maine and north into Canada, possibly into Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, a confined area south of the Saint Lawrence River, said Butcher.
The river and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence are kept free of ice in the winter for ship-borne commerce, making them impassable for a land bound cat.
Federal and state agencies are moving to be sure the lynx remains in Maine, including planning to provide ample habitat for the snowshoe hare as well as conserving and managing large blocks of forests with diverse habitat.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune