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Wildlife conservation groups have secured an agreement from the feds to evaluate the Southern Rockies for lynx critical habitat.

Late Monday, the District Court of Montana approved a legal agreement with wildlife conservation groups secured with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to revise its Canada lynx critical habitat rule to evaluate territory in the wild cat’s southern Rocky Mountains range essential to its recovery.

The groups sued in 2020 over the agency’s failure to comply with a 2016 court order over the issue. The Service has now agreed to evaluate the southern Rockies for inclusion as critical habitat for lynx in a proposed revision to its Canada lynx critical habitat rule by November 21, 2024. The Service could then provide the public an opportunity to comment and submit data regarding the proposal before finalizing a rule in 2025.

Canada Lynx Credit USFWS Dash Feierabend

“We are hopeful today’s agreement will combine with our other Canada lynx victories to give this snow-dependent big cat a fighting chance at survival in the face of our warming climate,” said John Mellgren, general counsel at the Western Environmental Law Center. “We have had to push the Fish and Wildlife Service for every inch of progress on Canada lynx recovery efforts, and are hopeful the agency is beginning a new chapter of good-faith recovery efforts for this ecologically significant and iconic wild cat.”

“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.

“Lynx were virtually eliminated from Colorado in the 1970s as a result of cruel trapping, poisoning, and development that lay waste to their habitat,” said Lindsay Larris, Wildlife Program Director at WildEarth Guardians, based in Denver.  “This settlement agreement is the first step in what will be a long road to true recovery for the lynx, but we are cautiously optimistic that it will result in thousands of acres of protected habitat for this majestic wild cat to return to its home in the Southern Rockies.”

“Colorado’s high country is an important place for lynx, especially in the face of climate change, and lynx are a vital part of the landscape in the Southern Rockies. Lynx habitat needs to be protected here to ensure the species will continue to recover,” said Peter Hart, legal director at Wilderness Workshop. “This settlement is an important step in that direction.”

In a perplexing move in 2013, the latest habitat designation decreased existing protections by 2,593 square miles. 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. In its 2016 order, 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.”

Today’s legal agreement institutes a hard, legally binding deadline of November 21, 2024 for the Service to publish a lynx critical habitat rule proposal, along with frequent progress reports, also legally binding, due to the agency’s long record of negligence and delay on the subject of Canada lynx recovery actions.

Canada lynx background:

Canada lynx, are medium-sized members of the feline family. They 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.

The Service first listed lynx as threatened under the 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 endangered standards of the ESA. 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 habitat designation that was remanded for improvement again in 2016.

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 or determine that such a plan would not promote the conservation of lynx by January 15, 2018. The Service ultimately determined that a recovery plan would not promote lynx conservation. The groups in today’s announcement and others sued and secured an agreement from the Service to abandon its plans to remove endangered species protections for lynx as well as complete a draft recovery plan by a tentative deadline of Dec. 1, 2024.

The Service’s 2017 Species Status Assessment analyzes lynx population centers’ “probably of persistence”—their likelihood of surviving to the year 2100—under its present regulatory framework as follows (map):

Unit 1: Northern Maine                50 percent
Unit 2: NE Minnesota                   35 percent
Unit 3: NW Montana/SE Idaho  78 percent
Unit 4: Washington                       38 percent
Unit 5: Greater Yellowstone        15 percent
Unit 6: Western Colorado           50 percent

The lynx Species Status Assessment paints a bleak picture for lynx, noting only one geographic unit (Unit 3 – MT and ID) “has a high (78 percent) probability of supporting resident lynx by 2100” and noting the remaining geographic units “were deemed to have a 50 percent or greater likelihood of functional extirpation…by the end of the century” [SSA at 6].

Studies show species with designated critical habitat under the ESA are more than twice as likely to have increasing populations than those species without; meaning the lynx needs designated habitat to survive. 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.