Third Time’s the Charm for Protecting Lynx Habitat

In response to two recent court decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will reconsider the designation of lynx “critical habitat” for a third time.  The Endangered Species Act requires critical habitat designation for all areas necessary to recover a listed population, and prohibits “adverse modification” of these areas.  The big question this time around is if the current designation will be expanded to include the southern Rockies area:  lynx habitat in Colorado and adjacent states.

Lynx, (c) Ken Curtis

Lynx recovery relies on the designation of "critical habitat" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A federal district court in Montana recently ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service provided insufficient grounds to exclude potentially important habitat both in Colorado and Montana (the Service had claimed that future of Colorado’s reintroduced population is still uncertain, so the importance of its habitat to the recovery of the lower-48 lynx population is premature).

Another federal district court in Wyoming ruled that the Service must revisit its economic analysis of the effects of the critical habitat designation in Washington State.  Defenders and several other groups represented by Earthjustice intervened in this lawsuit filed by a Washington snowmobile group, and successfully defended the bulk of the current critical habitat designation from this legal challenge, losing only on this narrow point that an environmental assessment that accompanied the previous designation was found lacking.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had considered appealing both rulings, but has instead opted for revising its designation a third time to address these two court rulings.  The agency’s initial designation in November 2006 was essentially limited to national parks that were already protected, and was thrown out by the courts after evidence that the decision was tampered with by Bush Administration officials.  The agency’s second designation in February 2009 covered a much larger area—approximately 40,000 square miles—but again was found deficient in these two rulings issued last year.  Defenders will actively participate in this latest update of the lynx critical habitat designation affecting lynx across the contiguous U.S. to ensure that all of their key areas are included.

We believe a recovery plan is the best way to translate lynx protections on paper to recovery actions on the ground, where they matter most to lynx. Recovery plans for other listed species like grizzly bears have made all the difference between just “hanging on” and making tangible, forward progress toward achieving recovery goals.

We look forward to a resolution of the critical habitat issue so that we can turn our attention to the greatest need facing lynx in the lower 48: a recovery plan.  We believe a recovery plan is the best way to translate lynx protections on paper to recovery actions on the ground, where they matter most to lynx.  Recovery plans for other listed species like grizzly bears have made all the difference between just “hanging on” and making tangible, forward progress toward achieving recovery goals.  These goals are specified in their recovery plans and include:  population goals (numbers and distribution); limits on mortality; targets for reproduction and survival of young; standards to maintain key habitats; recommendations for interstate and international collaboration and cooperation; and (very important for lynx especially) a strategy to adapt recovery actions to the anticipated effects of climate change.

With ongoing help from our members and supporters, Defenders will continue its leadership role among the many other advocacy groups, scientists and agency officials dedicated to the survival and recovery of this beautiful and majestic wild cat of America’s northern forests.

To learn more about lynx and climate change threats, watch this episode of Jeff Corwin’s Feeling the Heat:

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