contact Michael Garrity, Executive Director, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, (406) 459-5936
(Missoula) Last summer Federal District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of four conservation groups who took the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) to court claiming the federal agency had improperly and arbitrarily excluded areas occupied by Canada lynx in southwest Montana, north and central Idaho and Colorado as “critical habitat.” The Department of Interior filed an appeal of the ruling, but announced this week that it was dropping the appeal.
“This is great news for lynx,” said Michael Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which joined Native Ecosystems Council, Center for Native Ecosystems and the Sierra Club as plaintiffs in the suit. “It will provide essential connectivity and habitat corridors between areas in Montana and between the Northern and Southern Rockies. The areas in Montana include habitat in the Helena, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and Gallatin and Bitterroot National Forests and the Targhee, Idaho Panhandle, and Nez Perce National Forests in Idaho.”
The Canada lynx is a wild cat comparable to the bobcat in size. It is distinguished by tufts of dark hair on the ears and its long legs and large paws make it well-adapted to hunting in deep snow, where it has a highly specialized predator-prey relationship with the snowshoe hare — a species that also evolved to survive in deep snow. It’s on the Endangered Species list and, as Garrity explained, “that means the Fish and Wildlife Service is required by law to try and recover lynx populations so they can eventually be removed from the list.”
In 2006, the FWS designated critical habitat for the lynx, but limited it to 1,841 square miles in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington. But in March of 2007, the Department of the Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney released a report of an internal investigation into the conduct of then-Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Julie MacDonald. The report found that MacDonald had manipulated and undermined scientific findings in favor of land developers and had been heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports from the field. MacDonald resigned in May of 2007.
On July 20, 2007, the FWS acknowledged that because MacDonald may have inappropriately influenced the lynx critical habitat designation, the rule “may not be supported by the record, may not be adequately explained, or may not comport with the best available scientific and commercial information.”
In 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service re-issued the critical habitat designation, expanding it to approximately 39,000 square miles of critical habitat in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. “But that designation omitted large areas that are critically important to the conservation and recovery of the lynx, including habitat in Southwestern Colorado now occupied by a re-introduced population of lynx as well as essential habitat in northeastern Washington and central Idaho,” Garrity explained. “So we went to court to rectify the situation.”
Garrity said the court victory will have other benefits as well. “Expanding lynx critical habitat could result in less clearcutting by the Forest Service. The current bark beetle infestation running through western Montana forests is a bonanza for lynx. Dense forests with a lot of diseased and dead trees are prime habitat for both the lynx and its primary prey, the snowshoe hare. But the Forest Service’s answer to the beetle infestation is often clearcutting, which drives snowshoe hare from these forests and therefore leaves lynx without a prey base.”
“The previous critical habitat designation fell far short,” concluded Garrity. “We will be watching to ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service do a better job in the future.”