Lynx habitat plan shrinks

The federal government on Wednesday unveiled a scaled-back plan to name critical habit for lynx, designating only parts of national parks as areas where special regulations would be in place.

The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exempts private, state, county and tribal lands from the critical habitat designation as well as other federal lands where lynx recovery plans already are in place, such as national forests.

The rule, if it stands up in court, doesn’t affect the lynx forest cat’s status as a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. And Fish and Wildlife Service biologists say critical habitat designation on nonfederal lands would have been a political disaster with little or no benefit to lynx.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in 2005 to set aside 18,031 square miles of land in Minnesota, Maine and the Rocky Mountains for lynx critical habitat. But the final plan Wednesday included only a 10th of that land — 1,841 square miles, all on National Park Service property where federal regulations already are in place.

The designation includes 317 square miles in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, 1,389 square miles in Glacier National Park in Montana and 135 square miles in North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Federal officials say the critical habit designation is redundant, requiring only that landowners consult with federal regulators on lynx when they are crossing paths with federal rules, such as wetland permits or federally funded projects. But that requirement already is in place simply because of the lynx’s listing as a threatened species, said Laurie Nordstrom, Montana-based lynx coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nordstrom said county, state and private landowners vehemently petitioned the government to exclude their lands from critical habitat because of the baggage of further federal regulations.

Habitat designation could have affected how the county managed its own lands.

“Many of our forestry practices are, in fact, creating conditions that are conducive to Canadian lynx. … Our forest management already is wonderful for snowshoe hare and thus for lynx,” Nelson said. “We’re pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service limited their plan to the parks. For them to throw another blanket regulation on us, it might have affected timber sales.”

The plan exempts land managed for commercial logging because, Nordstrom said, logging creates good habitat for lynx.

But Defenders of Wildlife and other groups that sued the government successfully to require critical habitat designation, say Wednesday’s plan fails to satisfy the January 2004 court order that requires lynx to get critical habitat designation.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a slap at lynx and at the American people,” said Rob Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Colorado-based Sinapu. He added that the habitat plan “doesn’t come close to protecting habitat that lynx need to recover across their former range, which is exactly what is required by law.”

Lynx used to be fairly common in northern Minnesota. They were trapped heavily in the state until the 1980s when their numbers crashed and didn’t rebound. The state banned lynx trapping and hunting in 1984, but state biologists said lynx were essentially extinct in Minnesota by 2000 and that any animals seen here were migrants from Canada. Some biologists say that lynx declined because snowshoe hare numbers plummeted. Others say the state allowed too many lynx to be trapped in the 1970s.

But lynx have staged a rebound. Ongoing studies have confirmed more than 60 distinct lynx identified by DNA in Northeastern Minnesota. And researchers have confirmed that Minnesota-born lynx are having kittens, establishing a third generation. Some scientists say about 200 lynx live in the state.

Ongoing lynx research shows the animals are found mostly where they can find snowshoe hares, their favorite food, which favors dense, brushy cover — often in areas logged in the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, other groups have filed suit in recent months to stop some trapping practices in Minnesota where trappers after other animals are incidentally killing some lynx. Researchers at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth have lost nearly half of their radio-collared research lynx in the past three years, most due to human causes such as trapping, shooting, vehicles and trains.

By John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

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