The Fish and Wildlife Service today announced a revised critical habitat designation for the Canada lynx that marks a twentyfold expansion over a Bush-era designation tainted by political meddling.
The service set aside 39,000 square miles of forest in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. The decision reverses a 2006 designation that enraged environmentalists by declaring 1,841 square miles of habitat for the lynx.
In 2007, FWS agreed to revisit the designation after it was determined that Julie MacDonald -- President George W. Bush's appointee as the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service -- had pressured federal biologists to reach industry-friendly conclusions.
Critical habitat designations prohibit actions that would diminish the land's capacity to support their resident threatened or endangered species and are the chief implementation instrument of the Endangered Species Act, and logging is listed as the most threatening human activity throughout much of the lynx's habitat.
The new designation is unlikely to affect timber management, though, said Shawn Sartorius, FWS's lead biologist for the species. "Because their critical habitat units are so large, it's pretty tough to imagine a project that would preclude [lynx] recovery within a unit," he said, adding that the Forest Service had amended its plans to preclude such projects.
After a decade of lobbying and litigating, environmental groups celebrated the announcement, albeit with reservations.
Critical habitat was limited to lands that lynx currently occupy or have occupied in the recent past. Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called such logic a holdover from MacDonald and said that, in order to recover, the cats needed to be able to expand into parts of their historical range that they no longer occupy.
"Those additional areas would have been great to see, but overall, we're very pleased," Greenwald said. "It's a vast improvement."
Conservation groups were also hoping to see critical habitat designated in sections of Colorado's southern Rockies, where state wildlife officials have been reintroducing lynx since 1999 after the local population went extinct in the 1970s. FWS officials say they are not sure the state's habitat can support a lynx population, and without that knowledge, it would be premature to designate the area as critical habitat.
The Canada lynx was listed as "threatened" on the endangered species list in 2000 following a lawsuit from environmental groups. Because the reclusive cats depend on large, contiguous tracts of boreal forests to survive, their population has plummeted as timber harvests and development have destroyed or disconnected the forests. An estimated 1,000 lynx remain in the wild, according to FWS estimates.
Canada lynx range from 30 to 35 inches in length and weigh between 18 and 23 pounds. The cat is distinguished by its pointy ears and its broad paws and long legs that allow it to stay above snow drifts while hunting snowshoe hares.