Canadian Coinage Showcases Lynx, Bison

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By Dennis G. Rainey, World Coin News
September 28, 2009

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The Royal Canadian Mint honored numerous native wildlife on a platinum coin series that ran from 1990 (polar bear) through 2004 (grizzly bear). The peregrine falcon (1996) and harlequin duck (2001) were covered in the April 2009 issue of World Coin News. I have written previously about the muskox (coins issued in 1999) in an article in the July 2000 issue of WCN, and the pronghorn (coins issued in 1996) in the February 2002 issue of WCN. I wrote a more comprehensive article on the polar bear, including coins depicting this species from other countries, in the September 2008 issue of WCN. In this column I will discuss the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) – or Canada lynx as some call it – coins issued in 1995, and the American bison (Bison bison), coins issued in 1997.

There are four species in the genus Lynx in the world, and I wrote about the Iberian lynx in January. The two other lynx species are the Eurasian lynx (L. lynx) and bobcat (L. rufus) of North America. There are three feline species in Canada: lynx, bobcat and puma (Puma concolor), also commonly called cougar and mountain lion.

The Canada platinum lynx coins are: $30 (KM-266), $75 (KM-267), $150 (KM-268) and $300 (KM-269). Two other Canadian coins also depict this species: 1967 25 cents (KM-68) and 1999 50 cents (KM-338).

The Canadian lynx is a creature of the northernmost forests of Canada, Alaska and some northern U.S. states. The species is still fairly abundant in suitable habitat in Canada and Alaska, but in the lower 48 states there now are sizable numbers only in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and possibly Washington.

The species originally occurred in 24 U.S. states. Some state records are quite old, and lynx no longer occur in those states such as Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as threatened in the lower 48 states. There may be small numbers of non-breeding individuals in Idaho, Utah (hair found in 2002), Wisconsin (records here are probably strays from Canada) and Michigan (extremely rare). One was shot in Vermont in 2002, and they just pass through New York.

This lynx is strongly associated with the distribution of the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), its main food in much of its range. In the North (Canada and Alaska), the hare has a well-studied 10-year cycle of building large populations, crashing, then rebuilding numbers to another high. The lynx cycles, too, but out of phase – there are higher numbers when hares are abundant and then the population crashes following the hare crash. In the southern parts of the lynx’s range, hares apparently also cycle (eight- to 11-year period) but at a reduced amplitude. Due to lack of studies and lynx rarity, it is not known if lynx cycle, too. It has a more diverse prey than in the north, so it may just fluctuate irregularly in numbers.

The Canadian lynx is medium-sized ranging from 30 to 35 inches long with a short black-tipped tail, long legs and weighing from 18 to 23 pounds. They have quite large feet covered in winter with coarse hair enabling them to travel over snow quite easily. The eyes are large and it has long hair tufts atop its large ears differing from its relative, the bobcat, that has short tufts. Their color is light gray in winter and reddish brown in summer. They have acute senses of vision and hearing.

Studies in Canada reveal that the snowshoe hare makes up 75 percent of the lynx’s diet. Even though the hare is the preferred diet, other prey are taken when hares are scarce. Also, most of the research on diet has focused on winter diet and in the northern part of its range. What it eats in summer and in the southern portions of its range are not well understood. Birds such as grouse, jackrabbits and squirrels are eaten where lynx are spottily distributed in more southern habitats where snowshoe hares are not as abundant.

Besides starvation in times of hare population lows, the chief cause of mortality in Canada is trapping for pelts. Controlled trapping is permitted in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It is said that the lynx is easy to trap.

Trapping intensity is correlated with the price of pelts, and before both trapping seasons and numbers taken were regulated, trapping did influence the size of lynx populations in Canada. A decline began after 1900 and continued until the mid-1950s. Then fur garments lost their popularity, and the lynx population recovered. However, since the 1970s, demand for pelts has increased, and by the mid-1980s price per pelt was $500 (CAD). By early the 1990s the price dropped to about $117.

There is some interest in raising lynxes on ranches as is done with mink and fox.

A good source of information on the lynx is the book, Ecology and Conservation of Lynx in the United States, by L. F. Ruggiero, et al., especially Chapter 8, History and Distribution of Lynx in the Contiguous United States, K. McKelvey et al., 480 pages. It was published in 2000 by the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.

American Bison

The 1997 Canada platinum American bison coins are: $30, KM-300; $75, KM-301; $150, KM-302; and $300, KM-303.

Bison were formerly common in Alaska, western Canada and a large part of the United States into northern Mexico. Earnest Thompson Seton estimated there were 75 million bison in North America in prehistoric times, but others have lower estimates of 30 to 50 million. This was perhaps the world’s largest terrestrial vertebrate population.

In the late 1800s millions were slaughtered, and by 1903 there were only 1,644 bison in all of North America, mostly in zoos, private ranches and parks. They only survived as a wild animal in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

There are two geographic varieties (subspecies) of this bison: the plains bison (B. b. bison) of the plains of southern Canada and central U.S., and the wood bison (B. b. athabascae) of northern Canada.

By the way, the bison is not a buffalo, but I doubt I can persuade readers to called the famous U.S. “buffalo nickel” the “bison nickel.” True buffalo are Old World animals of Africa and Asia. I also doubt that I can change the well-known old song “Home on the Range” to “Oh! Give me a home where the bison roam, where the deer and pronghorn play.”

This bison is the largest land animal in North America. Bulls reach a body length of 12.5 feet, possess a three-foot tail and weigh up to 1,800 pounds. A bull’s shoulder height is 6.5 feet. Females are somewhat smaller. Bison may be huge but they can run 30 miles per hour and are excellent swimmers.

Bison are grazers eating prairie grasses and in winter lichens and mosses. They mature sexually in about eight years and females have one calf (rarely two) every one or two years. They can live up to 20 years.

Today in Canada a herd of about 600 plains bison is fenced at Elk Island National Park. Small numbers are fenced at Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba and Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. In 1994 about 3,000 wood bison were in Canada, most in free-roaming herds, the largest of which (greater than 2,000) are in Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary in Northwest Territories. A herd of hybrid wood and plains bison numbering about 2,000 roam free in Wood Buffalo National Park on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border.

Following are some interesting facts gleaned from the Web site of The National Bison Association (

The number of bison in North America is 500,000. The number in Canada is 250,000. The number in the United States on ranches and farms is 232,000. The number of private ranches and farms raising bison commercially in the U.S. is 4,000, and the number slaughtered under federal inspection in 2004 was 30,000. Bison meat contains fewer calories, far less fat, more protein and more iron than beef. You can order the cookbook, Buffalo is Heart Healthy, from the association.

I have eaten bison meat at a picnic held at the 18,500-acre National Bison Range Visitor Center while attending a scientific meeting at the University of Montana several years ago and found it somewhat tough, but it was probably cooked too long. “Low and slow” is recommended. I did not see a bison, but 300 to 500 live on the range.

The following reference contains good technical information: Bison bison by Mary Meagher, Mammalian Species No. 266, 1986, by the American Society of Mammalogists.

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