BILLINGS, Mont. — Wildlife officials have dropped their appeal of a court ruling that forces the government to revise its flawed plan to protect critical habitat for Canada lynx.
The move means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to reconsider areas in Colorado, Montana and Idaho for critical habitat designation. However, the agency has not set a deadline to complete the work, said litigation director Ann Carlson.
"We have quite a large workload in listing critical habitat in this region and we have to prioritize," she said. "We are working on a timeline for accomplishing all of our work but it is still in preliminary stages."
Lynx were deemed in threat of extinction across the lower 48 states a decade ago. Climate change, logging, ski area expansions and off-road vehicles are among potential threats to the elusive predators, which live in boreal forests with deep winter snows and abundant snowshoe hares.
Officials have struggled to come up with an acceptable habitat plan — a process marred by political meddling during the Bush administration that led to a 2006 plan being scrapped.
A second plan in 2009 designated 39,000 square miles in Maine, Minnesota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington as critical habitat. But U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy last year faulted wildlife officials for excluding Colorado, where lynx are making a strong comeback, and some national forests in Montana and Idaho.
Molloy's ruling in part said the government had improperly used reproductive success of lynx as a substitute to determine what areas of forest were suited to sustaining the animal.
Carlson said her agency will have to drop its use of the proxy, and instead identify landscapes that include "physical and biological features essential to the species."
Some environmentalists have said the combined size of areas considered critical to lynx could more than double under the revision. The Sierra Club, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and Center for Native Ecosystems had sued the government in U.S. District Court in 2009, saying more designated habitat was needed.
Even with those designations still in flux, Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said Molloy's ruling will make the government more cautious on logging and other activities.
"Clearcutting by definition will modify critical habitat. It drives out snowshoe hares, which are the main prey base of lynx," he said.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Diane Katzenberg described habitat designations as largely redundant in the case of lynx, because their endangered status already provides enhanced protection.
Occupied lynx habitat in Colorado was left out of the federal government's 2009 plan. Efforts to reintroduce the species were ongoing at the time and success remained uncertain.
Yet state wildlife officials recently declared victory in those reintroduction efforts. In September, the state Division of Wildlife announced the animals were reproducing faster than they were dying — evidence of a self-sustaining population.
Some Colorado lynx have dispersed south into New Mexico, prompting a pending petition from environmentalists for that state to be added to lynx recovery efforts.
David Gaillard, a carnivore specialist with Defenders of Wildlife, said there are likely fewer than 1,000 lynx across the lower 48 states. There are fewer than 500 of the animals in Montana and about 100 to 200 animals each in Maine, Colorado and Washington., he said.
Once the critical habitat plan is in place, what's needed most for lynx is a detailed recovery plan, Gaillard said. That would set population goals for the species, attract money for scientific research and force more active management of the animals by federal and state agencies, he said.