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More than 20 years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the Canada lynx a threatened species, the agency has agreed to prepare a recovery plan for the elusive, forest-dwelling carnivores. Last week the agency entered into a settlement agreement with six conservation groups that sued USFWS in 2020 over its management of lynx.

The plaintiffs had argued that an agency assessment finding that the animals have recovered and therefore no longer require federal protections was motivated by politics and litigation fatigue rather than scientific evidence of lynx recovery. The lawsuit asked the U.S. District Court in Missoula to order USFWS to prepare a recovery plan, something the conservation groups said should have been done years before. 

That recovery plan should start taking shape in the coming months. According to the settlement agreement, the agency “no longer intends to submit a proposed rule to delist lynx and will instead prepare a recovery plan for lynx.”

Recovery plans are sometimes called “roadmaps to recovery.” They help the agency identify threats to a species’ survival and give federal agencies objective criteria for measuring the success of recovery efforts. Per the agreement, USFWS will also review and update its Species Status Assessment, a “focused, repeatable and rigorous” assessment used to guide wildlife management. The agency’s most recent lynx species status assessment argued that federal protections were no longer warranted due in part to an increase in lynx populations in Maine and Colorado. That same document, which was issued in 2017, found that lynx populations “may have contracted” in other areas, including northwestern Montana and northeastern Idaho.

The settlement indicates a marked shift in the agency’s approach to lynx management, which has implications for how agencies like the U.S. Forest Service approach resource extraction — logging, namely — in lynx habitat. Per the settlement, USFWS will draft a lynx recovery plan by Dec. 1, 2023, and issue a final recovery plan within a year of the draft release. 

In a press release about the settlement, the plaintiffs said they appreciate the agency’s commitment to using current climate science in its decisions and are looking forward to measurable progress toward lynx recovery.

“It’s nice to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reverse course, apply the best available climate science, and put its time and energy into recovery planning for the species,” said Matthew Bishop, a senior attorney with Western Environmental Law Center who has worked on lynx management issues since the late 1990s. “This is a victory for lynx, science, and for everyone who values healthy ecosystems.”

“We are hopeful that this decision is a harbinger of things to come from a Fish and Wildlife Service that will consider how to best protect species in the face of climate change, and will rely on science and not politics in taking bold action to prevent extinction,” said Lindsey Larris, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians.

Canada lynx live in boreal forests of North America. Their large paws enable them to travel efficiently through deep snow, giving them a hunting advantage over other predators like bobcats. The conservation groups have argued that climate change could compromise their recovery.

USFWS did not provide comment on the development by press time Tuesday afternoon.

The settlement agreement comes less than two weeks after the Biden administration announced its nomination of Martha Williams, a Montanan who had formerly served as director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to lead USFWS, which oversees administration of the Endangered Species Act and 567 national wildlife refuges. Williams had been serving in that capacity since January, when she was named the agency’s principal deputy director. The nomination still requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate to make the appointment official.

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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.