Critical habitat for Canada lynx will be re-evaluated by the federal government in three states, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its appeal of a ruling by a federal court judge in Missoula.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy decided last summer that the federal agency had improperly and arbitrarily excluded areas occupied by Canada lynx in southwest Montana, north and central Idaho and Colorado when designating critical habitat for the wild cats, which are on the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Forest Service filed an appeal of that ruling, saying it had acted correctly in using lynx reproduction levels rather than designating areas where they currently roam.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies - one of four environmental groups that sued over the lynx - said their critical habitat designation in Montana ran south in a corridor from the Canadian border to U.S. Highway 12 along MacDonald Pass. But lynx also are present on other national forests, including the Gallatin, Bitterroot, Lolo, Beaverhead/Deerlodge and Lewis and Clark.
"Now they have to look at all occupied lynx habitats to see if they're important to the conservation and recovery of lynx," Garrity said on Monday. "We know that lynx travel south of MacDonald Pass ... and are traveling back and forth from Colorado. In the long run, they need protected, connected habitat."
He added that since the USFWS dropped its appeal, so did the plaintiffs in the case.
It's estimated that about 1,000 lynx exist in the United States, including about 500 in Montana. The Canada lynx is about the size of a bobcat, but distinguished by tufts of dark hair on its ears, with long legs and large paws that make it well adapted for hunting in deep snow.
In 2006, the USFWS limited it's critical habitat for lynx to 1,840 square miles in Minnesota, Montana and Washington. That designation was revisited in 2009 and expanded to 39,000 square miles in Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.
But Garrity's group, along with the Sierra Club, Native Ecosystems Council and Center for Native Ecosystems, argued that still wasn't adequate, especially since the critical habitat designation excluded Colorado, so they filed their lawsuit.
Ann Carlson, the litigation director for the USFWS, said they don't have a deadline for revising the critical habitat designation.
"We have quite a large workload in listing critical habitat in this region and we have to prioritize," she said. "We are working on a timeline for accomplishing all of our work but it is still in preliminary stages."
But her agency will work toward identifying landscapes that include "physical and biological features essential to the species."
Diane Katzenberg, a USFWS spokeswoman, added that habitat designations are largely redundant in the case of lynx, because their endangered status already provides enhanced protection.
But David Gaillard, a carnivore specialist with Defenders of Wildlife, said the critical habitat designation is important so a detailed recovery plan can be developed. The plan would set population goals for the species, attract money for scientific research and force more active management of the animals by federal and state agencies.
Yet even without the habitat designation, Garrity said the issue will be important as national forests like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge consider removing thousands of trees that were killed during the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic. Typically, in lodgepole pine forests like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, all the trees are removed and the resulting clearcuts can damage snowshoe hare habitat, which are the main prey for Canada lynx.
"They (the USFWS) don't have a timeline, so I supposed they could wait until the second coming of Jesus Christ if they wanted to," Garrity said. "But in the meantime, they have to look at the impact on potential lynx habitat for future projects."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com