Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) In compliance with a court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to monitor Canada lynx for 20 years prior to proposing delisting, although its most recent assessment shows climate change could eliminate much of the lynx habitat in the U.S. by the end of the century.

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft recovery plan for the Canada lynx, in addition to an addendum to its 2017 Special Species Assessment. The updated information in the addendum was used to write the recovery plan.

The Service listed the Canada lynx as threatened in the U.S. in 2000, basing its decision on the fact that there were few regulations that prevented damage to lynx habitat on federal land or to the cats themselves.

Lynx need large forested landscapes that get cold enough to receive deep snow and that harbor healthy populations of snowshoe hare. The largest populations of lynx inhabit the boreal forests of Canada, but the southern edge of their range extends down into the northern portions of Washington, Montana/Idaho, Minnesota and Maine, which make up four U.S. population units.

Lynx became established in Colorado after the Service released 218 lynx from Canada and Alaska into the San Juan Mountains between 1999 and 2006 so that’s the fifth unit. The six unit is the greater Yellowstone area, which contains suitable habitat, although no lynx population is there.

In 2017, a Fish and Wildlife Service lynx status review found that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had added requirements into their management plans that appear to conserve lynx habitat, so the Service says that’s no longer a factor. However, the amount of lynx habitat within the six population units is so limited that biologists say little can be lost.

The recovery plan requires that at least 95% of the lynx habitat in each unit must be conserved over the next 20 years. The six units are the Northeast, the Midwest, the Northern Rockies, the Northern Cascades, the Southern Rockies of Colorado and the Greater Yellowstone area. Federal agencies manage 64% of the land in these units. Another 27% is private.

In addition, the Service set a minimum population size for each unit. The minimum population for the Northern Rockies in Montana is 200, and the plan says the numbers are reliable, “despite the current lack of accurate, unbiased, and statistically robust population size estimates for all DPS populations.” They’re based on carrying capacity estimates or habitat amount, and home-range size estimates.

“Note, however, that we do not suggest that units with estimated population sizes exceeding the minimum (be) actively managed down to the minimum number,” the recovery plan said.

The six units are so far apart that the populations could become isolated and inbred if lynx can’t migrate between the units. So the recovery plan sets a requirement that connectivity must remain high between Canada and the four most northern units. The Southern Rockies also depend on the ability of lynx to move from the Northern Rockies to the Greater Yellowstone and then down to Colorado, using a “stepping-stone” model.

“Lynx are strong dispersers and have been documented to travel long distances, even across inhospitable landscapes, so it is a reasonable assumption that if forested habitat remains intact (or does not diminish substantially) lynx will continue to be able to move across the border,” the plan said.

To keep that forest habitat intact, the plan’s final requirement is to minimize the threats to lynx, which would require existing federal regulations to remain in place. Plus, state regulations should continue to minimize the incidental take of lynx during trapping. Other threats include large wildfires, forest management practices, development and outdoor recreation, although the plan said the last two didn’t affect as large of an area so weren’t as big a threat.

“Regulatory mechanisms must address the species’ need for large boreal forest habitats that provide a mosaic of structural stages supporting high hare abundance. Regulatory mechanisms will also need to address projected climate-driven decreases in habitat quantity and quality,” the report said.

The 2017 Species Special Assessment has already pinpointed climate change and related impacts – loss of snow, and vegetation conditions supportive of lynx populations; increases in the size, frequency, and severity of wildfires and beetle and budworm outbreaks in lynx habitats – as the factors most likely to threaten lynx. But the new addendum took an updated look at climate change predictions based on three climate scenarios, going from bad to worst. It found substantial projected loss of prevailing temperature conditions in half of the units by 2050 and a dramatic northward contraction of cold weather by the end of this century, regardless of climate scenario.

“By mid-century, projected climate warming will likely result in substantial loss of favorable temperature and snow conditions in one or two of the five SSA Units that currently support resident lynx populations, depending on future scenarios,” the addendum said.

That alone is going to make it hard to conserve 95% of lynx habitat for the next 20 years.

By law, the Fish and Wildlife Service should have published a recovery plan for lynx within 60 days of the listing. So, this streamlined recovery plan is about two decades late, and as with other threatened species, such as the wolverine, it took lawsuits to ensure the agency complied with various requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Conservation groups first sued in 2013 to force the agency to write a recovery plan. In May 2014, Missoula federal district judge Donald Molloy agreed with the conservation groups that a delay of 13 years was excessive for a recovery plan that’s supposed to be finished less than 3 years after delisting.

On Dec. 11, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration issued a decision saying it had determined a recovery plan wouldn’t promote the conservation of lynx. Instead, it chose to carry out a delisting. In 2020, the Service began developing a proposed rule to remove the lynx from the Endangered Species List and started writing a post-delisting monitoring plan, even though it had never written a recovery plan.

In December 2020, after Joe Biden won the Nov. 3 presidential race, conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the claim that a recovery plan wouldn’t help lynx. Almost a year later, new Service leadership settled the case, agreeing to stop moving forward with delisting and to develop a draft recovery plan by December 2023.

The Service has also dithered over its identification of critical lynx habitat, finally producing the first designation in 2006. Wildlife advocates - the Sierra Club, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and Rocky Mountain Wild - sued, saying the area was too small.

In response, in 2009, the USFWS increased the area by adding units in six northern states, including Montana. But it didn’t include interconnecting areas, such as the greater Yellowstone, capable of hosting lynx if the lynx population expanded.

The groups sued in 2010 saying numerous large areas of prime lynx habitat and wildlife corridors throughout five national forests in Montana and Idaho, the Kettle River Range/Wedge area near the Columbia River in northeast Washington leading to the Cascade Mountains, as well as millions of acres in the southern Rockies, deserve to be included.

After the Service issued a similar designation in 2014, the groups sued again. Finally, in April 2022 settlement, the Service committed to revising the critical habitat designation for the lynx by November 2025.

Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, said it was good to finally see a recovery plan after two decades. But the same wildlife groups that sued before are concerned that there’s not enough consideration of connectivity areas or other lynx habitat, particularly in Idaho.

The groups are also concerned about the emphasis the Special Status Assessment placed on timber management to reduce wildfire because “forests have had a century of wildfire suppression” and fires burned 8% of the Northern Rockies unit between 2017 and 2021.
However, the plan does say that timber harvest can help restore but it can also diminish lynx and hare habitat.

“Projected climate warming, anticipated wildfires, and the need for wildland fire management are likely to pose an increasing risk to Canada lynx and a growing challenge to land managers to address that risk,” the assessment said.

Garrity and others have successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service for trying to push through large logging projects in lynx habitat in northwestern Montana with minimal analysis.

“Logging or fuel treatments destroy snowshoe hare habitat, and it won’t return the habitat for at least 40 years or more, which is an irretrievable loss. What are lynx going to do in the meantime?” Garrity said. “Logging or fuel treatments don’t stop severe wildfires - there’s plenty of science that shows you can’t fireproof forests. If the recovery plan is going to allow lynx habitat to be logged and treated, it’s nothing more than a lynx extinction plan.”

The Service is accepting comments on the draft through Jan. 30, 2024, and the final recovery plan should be published within a year. The draft recovery plan and its associated documents can be found at https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/3652.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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