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A coalition of conservation organizations has sued the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on grounds that the government has failed to prepare a recovery plan for Canada lynx a full 20 years after the species was designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit also claims that the government’s 2017 finding that the cats are recovered has no scientific support.

Friends of the Wild Swan, WildEarth Guardians and a host of other conservation nonprofits from Colorado to Washington filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Tuesday. The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who is familiar with the controversy generated by lynx management: in 2014, he sided with Friends of the Wild Swan and others in a ruling directing FWS to prepare a recovery plan for lynx.

The lawsuit represents the latest challenge to management of the species in what’s been a “20-year saga,” according to Matthew Koehler, WildEarth Guardians’ communications manager.

Koehler said lynx are vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, road building and development. He said climate change poses a serious threat to lynx viability in the western U.S. by reducing snowpack in the boreal forests that lynx inhabit. Drought and high temperatures that fuel high-intensity wildfires and bark beetle epidemics further stress these forests, he said.

Molloy’s 2014 decision gave FWS until January 2018 to prepare a recovery plan. Just before that deadline, the agency produced a Species Status Assessment that found there are more lynx in Maine and Colorado than likely occurred historically. It also notes that lynx distribution in northwestern Montana and northeastern Idaho “may have contracted” recently, and that no lynx have been detected in the Greater Yellowstone Area (southwestern Montana and northwestern Wyoming) since 2010. Lynx populations across the six geographic units the agency studied are expected to become smaller and more patchily distributed in the future due to climate-driven losses in habitat quality and quantity.  

Despite that conclusion, FWS now considers the species recovered, though it has never formally delisted Canada lynx. As a result, the species remains “in limbo,” according to a press release from the plaintiffs. Their Dec. 1 complaint claims that the agency’s assessment of lynx as recovered is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the [Endangered Species Act].”

Requests for comment from the Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were not returned by deadline.

Matthew Bishop, who has been litigating the lynx issue as an attorney with the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center since the late 1990s, said his clients decided to file the lawsuit after reviewing recent studies and agency communications regarding lynx management garnered from Freedom of Information Act requests.

Bishop said that comparing trapping data from the 2000 listing decision with the species’ present-day distribution reveals that the animals’ range in Montana has shrunk significantly. There are no longer lynx in the Garnet Range, Pioneer Mountains or Greater Yellowstone region, he said.

Map courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Look at Montana’s own data … their range has contracted quite a bit just in Montana,” he said.

Bishop said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s approach to lynx management appears to be motivated by politics and fatigue over litigation rather than science.

“We had to sue them every step of the way — to list the species, to fix the listing, to do the recovery plan, to do critical habitat, to consult on timber projects and forest plans,” he said. “It seems like they just try to do these shortcuts and want out. They want out of their obligations.”

Friends of the Wild Swan program director Arlene Montgomery said northwestern Montana’s lynx require thick forest understory and tend to steer clear of logging clear-cuts, for example. Road building also negatively impacts lynx because the compacted surface of roads tends to open hunting ground for competitor predators, she said.

Lynx are habitat specialists, meaning they evolved to thrive in a very narrow range of environmental conditions. They have exceptionally large paws that make them particularly adept at traveling through deep snow and hunting for snowshoe hare, which account for up to 96% of their winter diet. The competitive advantage afforded by their large paws diminishes when climate change-spurred declines in snowpack open snowshoe hare hunting grounds to other predators like bobcats and coyotes.

“It looks like there’s going to be more competitors coming into areas that are kind of lynx strongholds right now,” said wildlife biologist Arthur Scully, who conducted a 2018 study in Washington state that found lynx are negatively impacted when bobcats move into their winter range. “The more pressure they have, the more likely those populations are [to experience] extirpation.”

Concerns about how climate change will impact future Endangered Species Act listings for other snow-dependent species like wolverines could also play a role in FWS’ approach to lynx management, Bishop said. The Endangered Species Act, which was passed by Congress in 1973 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, directs the Secretary of the Interior to give consideration to species that are “in danger or extinction, or likely to become so in the foreseeable future.” 

“Foreseeable future” is a nebulous term, and the Trump administration has directed federal agencies to interpret it on a case-by-case basis using the best data available. In practice, “foreseeable future” comes out to about 30 years for species like lynx, Bishop said.

“If they go out past 30 years, there’s a lot of species [that] are going to be in trouble,” he said. “It’s going to start opening the floodgates.”

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.