Lynx protection costly, report claims

Lynx chasing a hare
Designating 18,000 square miles of critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx could end up costing somewhere between $175 and $889 million during the next 20 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated earlier this week.

The draft economic analysis is yet another step in the painstaking process of developing an overall conservation and recovery plan for the rare cat. The study purports to measure the costs related to a proposed critical habitat designation for parts of Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho and Washington.

Colorado wasn’t included in the critical habitat proposal, announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in November 2005. But conservation groups, including the Center for Native Ecosystems and the Defenders of Wildlife, challenged the federal proposal, claiming the agency needs to identify at least some critical habitat in the state to protect the lynx population that has been established under a state re-introduction effort.

Release of the draft economic impact study re-opens another 30-day comment period on the critical habitat proposal. The USFWS is under a federal court order to complete a critical habitat listing by November 2006.

Most of the cost – 91 percent – ascribed to the listing is from timber-related impacts including the care and cultivation of trees. Restrictions on pre-commercial thinning in potential timber harvest areas is the single biggest factor, said USFWS spokesperson Diane Katzenberger.

Under a guiding lynx conservation strategy, pre-commercial thinning of timber stands is discouraged because it decreases the amount of food available for snowshoe hares, the favored prey of lynx. Snowshoe hares thrive in dense, bushy stands of evergreens, where evergreen branches hang low, within reach. Thinning young trees reduces that crucial winter food source.

Other estimated costs associated with the listing are related to impacts on recreation (between $1.05 million and $3.06 million); public land management and conservation planning ($12.8 million). Impacts on transportation, municipal projects and utilities are estimated at up to $55 million, with another $9 million for administrative costs.

But Defenders of Wildlife claims the USFWS figures are flawed.

“They ignored the benefits of lynx conservation,” said Andrew Hawley, a staff attorney for the conservation group. Hawley said a report from his organization refutes the data in the federal document, showing the benefits of habitat conservation.

Katzenberger said the economic study is a tool to help federal policy makers decide if the regulatory burden associated with lynx conservation is “disproportionate” to the public. The burden has to be balanced against the benefits of species recovery.

She said the agency doesn’t assign a monetary value to species recovery efforts because there is no widely accepted way to determine that value.

“Conservation benefits are best measured in biological terms,” she said.

The federal agency had to be forced under court order to develop a critical habitat designation proposal, despite clear language in the Endangered Species Act requiring that crucial step as part of the conservation and recovery effort for species listed as threatened or endangered.

According to the USFS, critical habitat designations have not provided effective protection for listed species, but have prevented the agency from using its scarce resources for activities with greater conservation benefits. The agency claims voluntary cooperative partnerships with landowners, safe harbor agreements and habitat conservation agreements are all more effective strategies for protecting listed plants and animals.

That may hold true for some species with a limited range, but conservation groups argue that, in the case of wide-ranging species like lynx, whose habitat is mostly on national forest land, a critical habitat designation is a key part of a sustainable recovery plan.

Conservation groups were especially miffed that Colorado was left out of the habitat proposal.

“We pointed out in our initial comments that Colorado is occupied lynx territory,” Hawley said. “The Endangered Species Act says clearly that all occupied territory that essential to the conservation of a species must be designated. Their (the USFWS) attempts to exclude federal lands is patently illegal and has been proven so in court.”

The public now has the chance to weigh in one more time about whether the federal government should designate critical habitat for lynx in Colorado. Comments are due Oct. 11 and should be sent to: Field Supervisor, Montana Ecological Services Field Office; 585 Shepard Way, Helena, MT, 59601. By email: fw6_lynx@fws.gov (include RIN 1018-AU52 in the subject line.)

The economic analysis can be downloaded at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/lynx.

By Bob Berwyn

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