The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is being sued by a coalition of environmental groups that says recent expansions to the Canada lynx's protected habitat are still insufficient to protect the endangered cat from climate change.
The suit is thought to be the first legal challenge of a habitat designation brought on the grounds of climate change.
Canada lynx live in upland boreal forest and use their large paws to run atop the snowpack as they hunt. As the climate warms, some portions of the cat's current protected habitat may become unsuitable, forcing the predators to migrate to colder zones. To survive those migrations, the lynx will need protected passages that the new designations failed to provide, according to Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the groups suing FWS.
"The current designation fails to consider the effects of climate change on lynx habitat, and that is unacceptable," Hamilton said.
FWS representatives were not available for comment.
Some have questioned the service's leeway under the Endangered Species Act to take future threats of climate change into account in its critical habitat designations, saying that the law is designed to address direct threats and that the difficulty of projecting future climate changes would force the service into making overly subjective decisions.
The suing environmental groups disagree. Eric Huber, a senior staff attorney for the Sierra Club, said that the Endangered Species Act requires the service to draw a critical habitat plan that ensures the lynx fully recovers. That mandate, Huber said, gives it the authority to take climate change into consideration. "[FWS] needs to look at [the land] not just as a snapshot today, but how it is going to be from today forward for the next 100 years," he said.
Critical habitat is one of the Endangered Species Act's strongest protections. Before any project can be undertaken on critical habitat, federal biologists must review it for potential harm to resident protected species.
In February, FWS designated 39,000 square miles of forest in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington as critical habitat for the lynx, reversing a 2006 decision that limited the reclusive cat's habitat to 1,841 square miles. The service agreed to revisit its 2006 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 (E&ENews PM, Feb. 24).
"While we are glad to see FWS designate lynx habitat, the new designation will not ensure the survival of the species," said Michael Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, another plaintiff.
Garrity said that even without the threat of climate change, the habitat would be inadequate because it isolates the cat into smaller populations, preventing it from developing a connected population with adequate genetic diversity.
He also cited the designation's exclusion of lands in Colorado, where state agencies and wildlife advocates have collaborated to reintroduce the lynx to Southern Rockies habitat where it was once extirpated.
The suit was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont. The Sierra Club and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies are joined in the lawsuit by the Native Ecosystems Council and the Center for Native Ecosystems.