Wildlife Groups Secure Legal Agreement To Further Protect Canadian Lynx By Calling For A Revised Evaluation Of Their Habitat In The Southern Rockies

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

The Service first listed lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act 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 ESA’s standards. 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.

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

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. 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 Mountains range, from south-central Wyoming, throughout Colorado, and into north-central New Mexico. These areas are vital to the iconic wild cat’s survival and recovery in the western United States, where lynx currently live in small and sometimes isolated populations.

“We are hopeful the 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,” John Mellgren, general counsel at the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “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.”

The species and their habitat are threatened by climate change, logging, development, motorized access, and trapping, which disturb and fragment their landscape, increasing the risks to lynx.

“Lynx were virtually eliminated from Colorado in the 1970s as a result of cruel trapping, poisoning, and development that lay waste to their habitat,” stated Lindsay Larris, Denver-based wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. “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.”

Shockingly, the Service’s latest designation decreased existing protections for lynx by 2,593 square miles. In doing so, the Service excluded much of the wild cat’s historic and currently occupied habitat in the Southern Rockies and other areas from protection. In its 2016 order, the court found that the Service failed to follow the science showing that lynx are successfully reproducing in Colorado, and therefore excluding Colorado from the wild cat’s critical habitat designation. This runs counter to the evidence before the agency and frustrates the purpose of the ESA.

The legal agreement institutes a hard, legally binding deadline of November 21, 2024, for the Service to publish a critical habitat rule proposal for lynx. This goes 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.

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

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