Maine trappers have inadvertently caught more federally protected Canada lynx in 2014 than any year since 1999. Whether that increase is attributable to a growing lynx population or lax trapping regulations is in dispute.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife said Wednesday that 19 Canada lynx have turned up in sportsmen’s traps so far this season, up from 14 accidental trappings last year and 10 in 2012. While IFW officials said 18 of the 19 lynx were released unharmed or with superficial injuries, the department recorded the first lynx death in a legally set device since rules were changed to avoid trapping fatalities six years ago.

The dead lynx was found in a body-gripper or “killer-type” trap in northern Aroostook County. State and federal officials are investigating the death because lynx are designated as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act, but IFW’s James Connolly said it appears the trapper was following the rules.

“Every time there has been a lynx death, even as the population increased, we have taken a look at those (incidents) and tried to learn from them,” said Connolly, director of the IFW’s Bureau of Resource Management.

Even so, the incidents are renewing a public debate about the adequacy of both Maine’s trapping regulations and a federal permit issued last month that allows trapping for other species to continue in areas of Maine inhabited by the reclusive wildcats.

“It very simply is an illustration of why we need better protections,” said Daryl DeJoy, executive director of Wildlife Alliance of Maine, which has successfully sued the state over lynx trappings.

Connolly, meanwhile, interpreted the higher trappings as evidence that more lynx are roaming the forests of northern Maine.

“We attribute it to a healthy lynx population that is increasing in areas of the state where they occur,” he said. “We are getting more and more reports from people out and about in the woods about lynx.”

Weighing up to 30 pounds, lynx are similar in size to common bobcats, but have large, padded feet that function like furry snowshoes.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are more than 500 lynx in Maine – the only East Coast state with a sizable population of the cats – IFW estimates the population at between 750 and 1,000.

They live primarily in the forests of Aroostook, northern Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties, where recent logging has created the type of habitat suitable to their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.

Maine grants roughly 6,000 fur-bearer trapping licenses annually, although the number of individuals who are actively trapping within lynx habitat is believed to be much smaller.

In early November, the federal agency granted Maine an “incidental take permit” that effectively shields the state and trappers from liability under the Endangered Species Act when lynx turn up in legally set traps.

Federal officials granted the permit – in the works for more than a decade – after determining that trapping “does not pose a significant threat to Maine’s lynx population” and that the state was taking adequate steps to minimize impacts on lynx.

That permit allows up to 195 lynx to be captured and three killed over the next 15 years in traps set for pine marten, fisher, coyotes and other species.

In return, Maine agreed to actively manage roughly 22,000 acres of state-owned land north of Moosehead Lake for lynx habitat in order to offset impacts on the species. The permit also requires game wardens or biologists to respond to trappings, when possible, to evaluate the lynx for potential injuries.

The 19 lynx trapped and one death so far this season puts Maine well above the rolling average set by the permit. If that trend continues, the state could be required to revisit trapping rules that have been tweaked repeatedly during the past decade to reduce the risk of lynx becoming ensnared in traps set for other species.

“As things happen, we are committed to evaluating those (rules),” Connolly said. “We did it before the permit … and we will continue to do it in the future.”

An endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Maine office could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

In response to the spate of lynx trappings, Mollie Matteson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a Vermont-based group involved in endangered species issues nationally, said “that’s no way to manage a threatened species.”

Matteson and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine also criticized the state and federal officials for relying on trappers to self-report incidents.

“To assume that everyone who traps a lynx reports it is naive,” DeJoy said.