BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – U.S. wildlife officials have agreed to develop a new habitat plan for the snow-loving Canada lynx that could include more land in Colorado and other western states where the animals few would be protected, according to a legal agreement made public on Tuesday.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service faces a 2024 deadline to draft the new wildcat plan after settling a legal challenge from two environmental groups – Wild Earth Guardians and Wilderness Workshop. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued an order late Monday approving the settlement.
The groups have filed a lawsuit to enforce an earlier court ruling by Christensen that said federal authorities wrongly excluded areas of Colorado, Montana and Idaho when they designated nearly 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometres) in 2014 as critical to the long-term survival of the lynx.
On lands designated as critical, federal agencies are required to consult with wildlife officials before undertaking or authorizing any activity that may destroy or alter the habitats of a protected species. These consultations can potentially lead to restrictions on logging in federal forests or limitations on dirt roads used for recreational purposes.
Christensen cited the presence of a breeding lynx population in the southern Colorado Rockies.
Agency officials had previously concluded that Colorado and adjacent areas of Wyoming and New Mexico were “not essential” for the species’ recovery, partly pointing to the low population densities of snowshoe hares. America that lynxes eat.
To comply with the judge’s order, the Fish and Wildlife Service will assess which parts of the Southern Rockies and elsewhere are critical for lynx and propose them for potential protections by Nov. 21, 2024, according to a statement provided by the agency spokesman Joe Szuszwalak.
Lynx are elusive animals that live in the forest. There is no reliable population estimate, but several hundred are thought to roam parts of the US Rocky Mountains.
The animals are also found in Minnesota, Maine, Washington State, and occasionally Michigan.
They were reintroduced to Colorado in the late 1990s and listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous United States in 2000.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, officials said the lynx had recovered and no longer needed protection after their numbers rebounded in some areas. President Joe Biden’s administration backtracked in November and agreed to maintain protections for the endangered lynx species. This did not resolve the dispute over which estates they would need to survive.
“There’s a lot of really good habitat in Colorado — wild, really remote areas,” said attorney John Mellgren, who represented the environmental groups that reached the settlement.
But he added that these areas face increased pressure as trees in forest areas are killed by beetles, wildfires and other problems which are compounded by climate change.
Some scientists warn that climate change could reverse progress in lynx recovery, melting its snowy habitat and decreasing the availability of snowshoe hares.
In 2016, US government biologists predicted that some lynx populations would disappear by 2100. This was based on models predicting widespread and substantial habitat loss due to climate change.
Under Trump, officials shortened their timeframe for considering climate change threats, from 2100 to 2050, due to what they said were uncertainties in long-term climate models. A government assessment based on this shortened time period concluded that lynx populations had increased from historic levels in parts of Colorado and Maine.
This version corrects the first name of the judge who presided over the Canada lynx prosecution to Dana, not Donald.