Wildlife officials say the Canada Lynx doesn’t need endangered listing, conservationists disagree
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that the Canada lynx is in recovery and no longer requires an Endangered Species Act designation. The announcement was met with opposition from wildlife conservation groups who believe the move is politically motivated.
The Canada lynx is an elusive snow cat about the size of a bobcat. It is present in Canada, Alaska, Maine and a few Western states including Colorado. The lynx had been locally extinct in Colorado since the ’70s until they were reintroduced to the southern part of the state in 1999. The federal government listed the lynx as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. The designation gives the lynx special protection, including regulatory measures considered burdensome by the logging and ski industries.
The Colorado lynx territory extends to Summit County, and it is estimated that about 100 to 200 lynx are left in the entire state from the 218 introduced back in 1999. The lynx relies on the snowshoe hare for survival. Climate change is shrinking the geographical footprint of the hare and, thus, the lynx.
Despite the low lynx population in Colorado, the USFWS said the cat was doing well enough across all the lower 48 states to be delisted.
“We are looking at the overall health of the species across the United States,” said Jennifer Strickland, public affairs specialist for USFWS. “Health in different units or different states may vary, but our job is to look at it as an entire population.”
The agency said they made the determination based on a scientific review and available data. Previous assessments gave a more dire projection of the survival of the lynx in the lower 48 going all the way into the year 2100, but the agency said those projections were too unreliable and changed the projection goal to 2050.
According to the Species Status Assessment issued by USFWS, the lynx has a 50 to 85 percent chance to survive in western Colorado through 2050, and a 20 to 70 percent chance to survive through 2100. The uncertainty of the latter projection is what led USFWS officials to set it aside.
Colorado wildlife officials are similarly unconcerned about the possibility of delisting the lynx.
Eric Odell, senior conservation manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that the agency has learned much about the lynx since it was reintroduced almost 20 years ago and that those lessons have been turned into best practices.
“I think the announcement reflects a positive development of the efforts we’ve undertaken in Colorado,” he said. “By expanding their population and providing more areas where lynx were historically present, I think we accomplished a lot with that effort.”
Odell also said that the initial endangered species listing of the Canada lynx spurred other state and federal agencies to adapt management practices that help with its survival.
“Part of the reason the lynx was endangered was because U.S. Forest Service did not take into account for its forest management plans,” he said.
He said that after the listing, state and federal agencies underwent reviews that took the lynx into account for their planning and rulemaking.
“And so even if delisting does happen, those restrictions and considerations will be in place. So I don’t have concerns about delisting being detrimental to the status of the species,” he said.
But these conclusions are not sitting well with wildlife conservationists.
Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center has followed Canada lynx conservation issues since it was listed in 2000, and had been outspoken about his opposition to the announcement. His main point of contention is that the feds had a pretty grim outlook for the lynx in 2016.
“Based on the draft assessment in 2016, we assumed it would remain listed,” he said.
He also is not convinced that the final draft could have had any new information that would support a different finding.
“I’m not aware of a single scientific study that would support their finding that the lynx has recovered nationwide,” he said.
Bishop added that the low numbers of Canada lynx in southern Colorado and near nonexistence in the north demonstrate a disconnect between the feds and conservation reality.
“The lynx lost a lot of numbers and range up in the northern Rockies. We don’t really have any lynx anymore up here in Montana, or the greater Yellowstone area. We’re not seeing them, none of the surveys are finding them.”
He added that there were barely 100 lynx in Idaho and 50 in Washington, which makes up most of the lynx’s territory in the West.
“Our point is that we think the Canada lynx is worse off now than it was in 2000. I think the feds are really just managing for survival, but the law says just not survival, it’s recovery. That’s better than just getting by. And we just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Bishop’s assessment is echoed by local wildlife groups, including the Endangered Species Coalition and Rocky Mountain Wild.
“We are concerned that climate change is likely to reduce lynx habitat, and there is no clear evidence that the lynx population is large enough to withstand the impacts of climate change, road mortality and other threats,” said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild.
Bishop said that the only logical reason USFWS would change its outlook is political motivation under the current Trump administration, which has shown general disdain for environmental regulations.
“We think it’s a purely political decision. They’re tired of having to go through the regulatory hurdles managing for the lynx. We don’t think there’s any scientific support for it.”
Strickland said her agency vehemently denied that charge.
“We are a science-based agency. We don’t take conserving animals lightly; that’s our job. We’ve had biologists and experts from all across the United States and Canada weigh in on this assessment, and we are confident that the science is sound.”
The agency’s announcement is the first step of possible delisting. The next step would be proposing a formal rule in the federal register to remove the lynx’s “threatened” designation and a public comment period. The agency would then undertake a review and then make a decision for delisting.
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