Lynx 5, feds 0
The federal government has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to adequately protect the Canada lynx, U.S. District Court Gladys Kessler decided earlier this month, making a ruling in a lawsuit that pitted 12 conservation groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).In what amounted to a verbal spanking, Kessler ordered the USFWS to "promptly" designate critical habitat for the threatened wild cats and to file progress reports with the court every 60 days. Additionally, federal biologists will be required to formally evaluate potential impacts of anyprojects proposed in lynx habitat.Conservation groups have claimed that, since the lynx was listed as threatened, federal agencies have been signing off on damaging projects with only minimal analysis of cumulative impacts. But under Kessler’s order, theagency won’t able to make additional "not likely to adversely affect" determinations until it completes the process of designating critical habitat.The agency’s long delay in designating critical habitat "runs completely counter to the mandate of the Endangered Species Act, which is to conserve ‘the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend,'” Kessler wrote in her decision."One of the implications of this is a clear message to Congress that the Fish and Wildlife Service needs more funds," says Jacob Smith of the Center for Native Ecosystems. Congressional spending limits have hampered the agency’s endangered species work for years, delaying the listing of numerous species.An appeal is likely, but if all or part of the ruling stands, it would have consequences for Colorado, where there are significant blocks of lynx habitat, including important movement corridors, mostly on national forest lands.Under the current listing rule, lynx in the Southern Rockies, including Colorado, were not deemed to substantially contribute to the overall persistence of the species. But Kessler has ordered the USFWS to reconsiderthe cats’ status in the Southern Rockies – as well as in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions – ruling that the agency acted arbitrarily, capriciously and in violation of the Endangered Species Act by claiming that those regionsare not important for lynx recovery.Any change in the status of Colorado’s lynx could require federal land managers to consider stricter conservation measures, especially if the USFWS designates critical habitat in the state."Without the designation of its critical habitat, and the protections which flow from such designation, the lynx would vulnerable to further extirpation and ‘destruction or adverse modification of habitat,’" Kessler wrote.In a footnote, Kessler also took the agency to task for gaps in the administrative record. Specifically, a number of e-mails sent to and from the USFWS biologist who wrote the final rule were somehow deleted, leading the judge to question whether the agency provided a complete record of the lynx listing process for judicial review.The long-running lynx saga has taken so many twists and turns that it’s hard to keep it all straight without a scorecard, but the latest decision is the fifth time that federal courts have ruled in favor of various conservationgroups that have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for dragging its feet with regard to the lynx listing.While the cats are relatively abundant in parts of Canada and Alaska, they are rare in most of the contiguous 48 states, with scattered populations in the northern Rockies and Cascades. The USFWS listed lynx as "threatened"under the Endangered Species Act in March 2000, only after being sued by conservation groups.In Colorado, the issue is complicated by the state’s lynx recovery effort, involving the capture and release of hundreds of lynx from Canada and Alaska.State officials had hoped to have those animals classified as a special research population, but federal officials demurred, instead easing the "takings" rules slightly to reduce sanctions for accidental killings. The lynx brought in by the state enjoy the same protection under the federal Endangered Species Act as any naturally persisting population.Almost all good lynx habitat in Colorado is on U.S. Forest Service land, much of it in higher elevation spruce and fir forests. That agency has been developing a series of forest plan measures aimed at conserving and recovering the species, but those plans may also need to be re-examined in light of last week’s court ruling.
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