By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – U.S. wildlife officials have agreed to keep federal protections in place for the snow-loving Canada lynx, under a court settlement approved by a Montana judge on Monday.
The settlement by the US Department of the Interior comes after wildlife advocates sued to retain protection for rare and elusive feral cats, which have been listed as endangered since 2000.
During the Trump administration, officials said the ynx had re-established in some areas and protections were no longer needed.
Independent scientists and wildlife advocates have warned that climate change could reverse this progress by reducing lynx habitat and the availability of a key food source – the snowshoe hare.
Canadian lynxes are about the size of bobcats, but with huge legs to help them navigate deep snow. There is no reliable estimate of their population. This has left officials relying on information about lynx habitat and hare populations to assess the status of the species.
Their protected status has halted many logging and road construction projects on federal lands, frustrating Western industry groups and lawmakers.
The decision to end protections in 2018 came when US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists shortened the government’s time frame to review climate change threats from 2100 to 2050, due to what officials called uncertainties in long-term climate models.
A government assessment based on this shortened period of time concluded that lynx populations have remained resilient and even increased from historical levels in parts of Colorado and Maine.
A new stimulus package for the lynx is expected by 2024 under the terms of the deal approved Monday by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana.
“This is the right decision, and the administration is to be commended for it,” said lawyer Matthew Bishop, who represents Friends of the Wild Swan, WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups in the case.
“There is no uncertainty that climate change will occur,” Bishop added. “The only uncertainty is when and how big it is. But that shouldn’t prevent a species from being listed.”
Federal wildlife officials did not immediately respond to questions about the settlement.
In an earlier assessment of the lynx, published in December 2016, US government biologists predicted that some populations would be extirpated by 2100. This was based on models predicting widespread and substantial changes in the animals’ snow-covered habitat due to the climate change.
The agency reached a similar conclusion in 2014 for another snow-loving creature, the North American wolverine. In that case, a federal judge rejected the government’s decision not to grant protections to wolverines, saying the animal was “squarely on the path to climate change.”
After reassessing the issue, the Fish and Wildlife Service said last year it was no longer seeking protection for wolverines. Agency officials said parts of the Rocky Mountains would retain enough snow in a warming world for wolverines to nest and breed successfully.
A legal challenge to the Wolverine’s decision is pending.
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