Canada Lynx May Win Back Critical Habitat

WASHINGTON, DC, February 28, 2008 (ENS) – Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released revised plans to establish critical habitat for Canada lynx in Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. The new habitat protection plan is in response to an investigation that found that a Bush administration political appointees interfered with the scientific process in the original decision.

“The possibility of stronger protection for the Canada lynx is welcome news,” said Tara Thornton, Northeast representative for the Endangered Species Coalition, a national network of hundreds of conservation, scientific, religious, sporting, outdoor recreation, business and community organizations.

“The exclusion of lynx habitat throughout the country during the first designation was purely political and lacked scientific support,” Thornton said. “These are beautiful cats that play an important role in northern forest ecosystems and we need to protect the lands they need to survive.”

The Canada lynx
(Photo courtesy BLM)

Today’s proposal would add 40,913 square miles to the 1,841 square miles of critical habitat for the lynx proposed previously, bringing the total to 42,753 square miles. The new rule may have an impact on land use decisions and development in the affected states.

The Canada lynx is one of seven species that warrant revision the Fish and Wildlife Service decided after former Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald was found to have improperly influenced endangered species decisions. She resigned in disgrace May 1, 2007.

After meeting with timber and development interests Maine Forest Council and Plum Creek, MacDonald ordered Fish and Wildlife Service employees working on the ruling to exclude Plum Creek lands and pressured mapping scientists to minimize the animals’ critical habitat.

Consequently, all private commercial forestland and all U.S. Forest Service lands were removed from the final habitat designation of the Canada lynx. This interference resulted in large-scale reduction in critical habitat for the lynx, a species dependent upon the cold and moist forests of Canada and the northern United States.

According to documents obtained from the federal agency by environmental groups, Plum Creek requested an exemption for all 958,000 acres of its lands in Maine and Montana that were proposed for lynx critical habitat. The corporation owns 8.2 million acres in 20 states, and is one of the largest private owners of lynx habitat in the United States.

Conservation organizations have pointed out that exempting Plum Creek’s lands would significantly reduce the chances for lynx populations to recover from the brink of extinction, while facilitating Plum Creek’s conversion of forestlands to real estate development.

In May 2007 regional Fish and Wildlife Service employees came up with a list of 15 species that potentially were affected by MacDonald’s decision-making.

In July 2007, the Service announced it would review only eight of the species identified. Then, in November 2007, the Service announced that seven of the eight species decisions do warrant revision, including the decision on lynx habitat.

According to the Endangered Species Coalition, the Bush administration review of endangered species decisions does not go far enough to find and address the systemic problems within the Interior Department.

Several conservation groups’ research indicates that as many as 50 endangered species decisions warrant review and possible revision.

Information obtained thru Freedom of Information Act requests demonstrate political interference and scientific manipulation occurred with regard to these decisions, the conservationists say.

“This malfeasance was not only the results of interference by Julie MacDonald but by other political appointees and agency employees. These documents prove that problems at the Interior Department go far deeper than one rogue employee – they show a department-wide disregard for the Endangered Species Act,” said the conservation groups.

“The seven endangered species decisions that are being revised are the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ Many other vulnerable species may have had their protections weakened. There must be a thorough examination of all cases where there is evidence that officials interfered with scientific decisions,” said Jon Hunter, policy director of the Endangered Species Coalition.

Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director of RESTORE The North Woods said, “It is great news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is again proposing protection for critical lynx habitat in Maine. But this is still just a proposal and the proof will be what is actually adopted by the agency. We will watch closely to make sure the critical habitat proposal is adopted.”

Currently listed as a threatened species in the United States, lynx grow about three feet long and have large feet for getting around easily on snow. They survive primarily on snowshoe hares, which also have large feet. The best remaining lynx habitat in United States is found in the northern forests of Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.

But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says on its website that lynx “may soon fall victim to climate change, and a hotter northern Minnesota may prevent lynx from ever returning to even far northern Minnesota.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting comments on the revised critical habitat rule until April 28, 2008. Unless requested, the Service does not plan to hold any hearings on the revised proposal.

The agency expects to announce its final critical habitat rule for Canada lynx in early 2009.

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