by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wildlife advocates Monday sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a third time for limiting the amount of habitat that would be protected for lynx.
The groups — the Sierra Club, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Rocky Mountain Wild — filed the lawsuit in Missoula Federal District court challenging the habitat designation that the USFWS issued in June.
The proposed lynx habitat includes areas currently occupied by lynx and areas that contained the big cat when it was listed as a threatened species in 2000. It does not include regions suitable for lynx but where no lynx are documented.
The lawsuit asserts that numerous large areas of prime lynx habitat and wildlife corridors throughout five national forests in Montana and Idaho, as well as millions of acres in the southern Rockies, deserve to be included.
“The Canada lynx is a magnificent animal that ranges from the Canadian border through the high mountains of the Rockies down to New Mexico,” said Eric Huber, Sierra Club senior attorney. “Its habitat deserves the utmost protection possible from oil and gas development, logging, mining and road building, so that the lynx throughout the Rocky Mountain West can interact and thrive.”
The USFWS issued its proposal in June after being sued last year by environmental groups seeking to force the agency to address the lack of habitat designation.
USFWS guidelines state that a species recovery plan should list affected habitat within 60 days of species listing. For the lynx, it’s taken 14 years.
The lack of a final habitat designation has been the basis of several lawsuits stopping U.S. Forest Service projects because the Forest Service either did not consult with the USFWS on habitat or the consultation was based upon earlier designations that courts found to be lacking.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ordered the USFWS to set a schedule to complete the lynx recovery plan.
But this lawsuit may send the USFWS back to the drawing board.
The lawsuit resembles a 2010 version that the groups filed for basically the same reason.
In 2009, the USFWS increased the area of the first habitat designation issued in 2006 by adding regions in six northern states, including Montana. But it still didn’t include interconnecting areas capable of hosting lynx if the lynx population expanded.
The USFWS may point to a new policy the service issued in July, a few weeks after issuing the most recent habitat designation.
Part of the new policy changes the definition of a species’ “range” from where it historically lived to where it lived at the time of being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
AWR executive director Michael Garrity said the USFWS can change the policy but that doesn’t change the law.
Both the 2009 and the current proposals don’t allow the opportunity for lynx to recover to the range and population size it once had, Garrity said. Plus there are lands that the cats traverse without living there year-round.
It is estimated that only 1,000 lynx inhabit a small portion of their range in the lower 48 states, mostly in forested and high-elevation areas.
“The corridors lynx are currently using in Montana and Idaho need to be protected as critical habitat. Other important lynx corridors in the states help connect the Glacier and Yellowstone National Park lynx populations,” Garrity said. “By failing to protect these corridors and designate any critical habitat in the Southern Rockies, the service is leaving lynx population isolated, essentially issuing their death sentence. Isolated populations lead to inbreeding and then extinction.”