Feds Failed to Protect Key Habitat in Colorado
MISSOULA, Mont. —(ENEWSPF)–September 7, 2016. Today the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to reconsider its decision to exclude the Canada lynx’s entire southern Rocky Mountain range, essential for the wildcat’s recovery, from designation as critical habitat.
Critical habitat is area designated by the federal government as essential to the survival and recovery of a species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once designated, federal agencies must make special efforts to protect critical habitat from damage or destruction. In 2014, the Service designated approximately 38,000 acres of critical habitat for threatened lynx, but chose to exclude the lynx’s entire southern Rocky Mountain range, from south-central Wyoming, throughout Colorado, and into north-central New Mexico. These areas are vital to the iconic cat’s survival and recovery in the western U.S., where lynx currently live in small and sometimes isolated populations. Now, according to the court’s September 7, 2016, order, the Service must go back and reexamine these areas.
“Given that evidence cited by the Service in the September 2014 final rule shows that a reproducing lynx population exists in Colorado, the Service’s failure, on account of marginal hare densities, to designate critical habitat to protect that population and aid in its maintenance is arbitrary, capricious, and ‘offends the ESA.’ ” Court order at 20.
“This decision gives the lynx a fighting chance to not only survive – but recover – in the southern Rockies,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the groups. “We’re hopeful this decision will mark a turning point for lynx conservation in in the heart of southern Rockies lynx habitat.”
Lynx habitat is under threat across the contiguous U.S. from climate change, road building, motorized recreation, and logging. Perplexingly, the Service’s latest designation decreased existing protections by 2,593 square miles compared to a 2013 plan. In doing so, the Service excluded much of the cat’s historic and currently occupied, last best habitat in the southern Rockies and other areas from protection. The court found the Service failed to follow the science showing that lynx are successfully reproducing in Colorado, and therefore excluding Colorado from the cat’s critical habitat designation “runs counter to the evidence before the agency and frustrates the purpose of the ESA.”
“With increasing threats from climate change and development, it’s long past time lynx receive every possible protection, including safeguards for the rare cat’s southern Rockies habitat,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to stop playing politics and start meeting its obligations to recover our most imperiled species, including lynx.”
The court ruled the Service did not improperly fail to designate historical Canada lynx habitat in Oregon and Washington’s Kettle Range, disappointing wildlife advocates.
“Canada lynx once roamed snowy peaks in Oregon from the Eagle Caps to Crater Lake,” said Oregon Wild Conservation Director Steve Pedery. “It’s unfortunate that this decision does not do more to help restore this iconic animal to its rightful place in the Oregon backcountry.”
“It is discouraging that Oregon was not included, but this victory keeps us hopeful for the species,” said Nick Cady of Cascadia Wildlands.
The Service first listed lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2000. However, at that time the Service failed to protect any lynx habitat, impeding the species’ survival and recovery. Lynx habitat received no protection until 2006, and that initial critical habitat designation fell short of meeting the rare cat’s needs and the ESA’s standards. After two additional lawsuits brought by conservationists challenging the Service’s critical habitat designations culminated in 2008 and 2010, a district court in Montana left the agency’s lynx habitat protection in place while remanding it to the Service for improvement. This resulted in the most recent and still inadequate habitat designation.
In 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana also ruled that the Service violated the ESA by failing to prepare a recovery plan for lynx after a more than 12-year delay. The court ordered the Service to complete a recovery plan for lynx by January 15, 2018.
“Lynx are a vital part of the landscape in Colorado and they need to be protected to ensure that they continue to recover, and eventually prosper,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “This decision is an important step in that direction.”
The Western Environmental Law Center represented WildEarth Guardians, Wilderness Workshop, Cascadia Wildlands, Conservation Northwest, and Oregon Wild on the case.
A copy of the decision is available here
Read more about WELC’s work to protect lynx critical habitat here
Canada lynx, medium-sized members of the feline family, are habitat and prey specialists. Heavily reliant on snowshoe hare, lynx tend to be limited in both population and distribution to areas where hare are sufficiently abundant. Like their preferred prey, lynx are specially adapted to living in mature boreal forests with dense cover and deep snowpack. The species and its habitat are threatened by climate change, logging, development, motorized access, and trapping, which disturb and fragment the landscape, increasing risks to lynx and their prey.
Studies show species with designated critical habitat under the ESA are more than twice as likely to have increasing populations than those species without. Similarly, species with adequate habitat protection are less likely to suffer declining populations and more likely to be stable. The ESA allows designation of both occupied and unoccupied habitat key to the recovery of listed species, and provides an extra layer of protection especially for animals like lynx that have an obligate relationship with a particular landscape type.