On April 25, Wilderness Workshop (WW) and WildEarth Guardians, a national nonprofit, secured a legal agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that directed the agency to once again reevaluate critical habitat for the Canada lynx.
The agreement was approved by the District Court of Montana, and the USFWS has until Nov. 21, 2024 to submit its revision; at that time the proposal will be open for public comment followed by a final revision in 2025.
“This is a victory for the Southern Rockies and for people who care about lynx in the Southern Rockies,” said Peter Hart, legal director at WW. “Colorado has iconic wildlife and lynx is at the top of the list.”
The agreement is part of a lengthy dispute between conservationists and the USFWS, detailing nearly two decades of negligence by the USFWS to act on designating critical habitat for the lynx.
According to Hart, the groups filed their most recent lawsuit in 2020 compelling the USFWS “to reevaluate their critical habitat designation [from a] 2016 court order.” The order directed the agency to include the southern Rocky Mountain range, which comprises south-central Wyoming, parts of Colorado and north-central New Mexico.
“[The USFWS] waited a long time before they even started their critical habitat designation process and their recovery plan process,” said Hart. “Both of those things are required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).”
In early 2000, the Canada lynx was listed as a threatened species under the ESA. According to the USFWS, when a species is listed as endangered or threatened, the federal government is required to designate areas, or critical habitat, that contain physical or biological features deemed necessary to the conservation of that species. Once established, these areas are to be protected by the federal government from damage and destruction.
However, shortly after the lynx was listed as threatened, the USFWS “due to budgetary concerns … deferred critical habitat designation,” with the promise to reevaluate “as soon as feasible, considering … workload priorities,” according to 2016 court documents.
When the USFWS failed to follow through, conservation groups filed a lawsuit, but the agency neglected to act and, for nearly six years, the lynx went without critical habitat protections.
In 2006, a revised proposal was submitted, but it was quickly “faced with questions about the integrity of scientific information used and whether the decision made was consistent with the appropriate legal standards,” the court documents stated.
After conservationists brought two more lawsuits, the USFWS reevaluated and included “approximately 39,000 square miles of critical habitat over five units in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington” but once again ignored accurate data and concluded that the lynx population in Colorado was not self-sustaining.
“I think there is a good deal of science suggesting it is a very important swath of habitat for the lynx,” Hart said. “The state says their population is increasing and they’re doing pretty well. That speaks to the value of Colorado’s high country as lynx habitat.”
Colorado’s native lynx population nearly died out in the 1970s due to trapping, poisoning and destruction of its natural habitat; but, when it was reintroduced to Colorado in 1999, the creature thrived in the state’s high-alpine areas with an abundance of snowshoe hare, its primary prey.
“[The lynx is] a very unique species that’s well adapted to very snowy, high-elevation climates,” Hart said. “They inhabit areas that are generally hard to get to, and they are uniquely well-adapted to navigate those areas.”
He continued, “The times you’re likely to see lynx is when you’re backcountry skiing high, high up in the mountains, a long way away from folks.”
Noting the effects that climate change, wildfires and human development will have on lynx habitat, Hart said it is imperative that the Southern Rockies is protected with support from the public.
“It’s important for the public to know there’s an opportunity for them to engage with the USFWS and advocate for the protection of lynx habitat,” Hart said. “We have an opportunity to look at everything considered and make sure they are not leaving anything out, and to push them in the direction that we would like them to go.”
Ultimately, the USFWS has “broad discretion, but they do have an obligation to look at the best available science,” he added.
“People in Colorado support lynx protection and I think they see lynx as an important part of our natural ecosystem,” Hart continued. “I think they’d like to see it remain and restored to its natural population. Protecting that habitat those animals depend upon is the most important part.”
Visit www.wildernessworkshop.org/join-us/ to become a Wilderness Workshop member and to receive email alerts for the lynx’s critical habitat public comment period.