Twelve years of foot-dragging on lynx recovery


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]RISCO — Twelve years is long enough to finalize an endangered species plan for rare lynx in the Rocky Mountains, a federal judge has ruled, ordering federal biologists to speed up their work. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a 30-day deadline to submit a schedule for recovery planning.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that he will hold the agency accountable for finishing the job that was started in 2000 when biologists decided the cats were so rare they needed protection under the Endangered Species Act. After decades of hunting, trapping and habitat degradation, only a few hundred lynx remained in the Rocky Mountains. In Colorado — before a reintroduction program started in 1999 — the last known lynx was killed in 1973 by a trapper near Vail.

“The Service cannot delay its statutory obligation indefinitely,” Molloy wrote in his May 8 ruling for the Missoula division of the U.S. District Court for Montana. “The history of this case causes a certain skepticism about the agency’s self declared deadlines for initiating recovery planning … Under this timeline, a recovery plan should have been in place in September of 2002, or twelve years ago.”

The fate of the mysterious mountain cats has been in limbo since environmentalists waged an epic battle with Vail Resorts back in 1998, when activists blockaded summer construction roads to prevent encroachment into lynx habitat in what is now a back-bowl ski area called Blue Sky Basin. The showdown culminated when out-of-state radicals launched a destructive arson attack against the resort, destroying an on-mountain restaurant and damaging other facilities.

[pullquote]The fate of the mysterious mountain cats has been in limbo since environmentalists waged an epic battle with Vail Resorts back in 1998, when activists blockaded summer construction roads to prevent encroachment into lynx habitat. The showdown culminated in a destructive arson attack.[/pullquote]

Since then, lynx have been spotted near ski trails, backcountry ski huts and backyards around Colorado. They’ve roamed back and forth across I-70, leaving little doubt that the elusive forest carnivores have spread across much of Colorado since those Vail protestors chained themselves to construction trucks to try and protect what was considered crucial habitat.

The fact that the cats have retaken their place in some of Colorado’s spruce and fir forests is due to an ambitious state reintroduction plan, dreamed up by a bunch of visionary wildlife biologists during a raft trip.

But, nationally, the job is not done, according to Judge Molloy, who blasted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its delays in living up to requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Under the landmark environmental law, federal biologists must complete a blueprint to show how they plan to prevent endangered species from vanishing, and, ultimately, to ensure their long-term survival across a significant portion of historic habitat. Setting a clear target for restoring a certain number of lynx is the only way to know when the species has been recovered. Then they can be taken off the list, like bald eagles in 2007.

After more than a decade, the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to finalize a recovery plan. Judge Molloy questioned whether the agency would do so without a court-ordered deadline.

“However, the stutter-step approach taken by the Service raises the concern — even the certainty — that if a deadline is not in place, a new impediment will continually prevent the development of a recovery plan for the lynx in contravention of the ESA. The Service cannot delay its statutory obligation indefinitely,” Molloy wrote, chastising the agency for 12 years of delay.

For Colorado’s lynx, 12 years has been enough time for several generations to breed and find new territories. Summit County based U.S. Forest Service biologists have even documented lynx reproduction near busy Vail Pass, where thousands of skiers, hikers and snowmobilers use an extensive winter trail network weekend. Several hundred lynx births were documented before state biologists stopped tracking the cats closely.

In 2010, as birthrates exceeded the wild cats’ mortality rates, Colorado wildlife officials declared the state-based restoration effort a success. Since then, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists have not done any population counts, but last estimated in 2010 that more than 200 lynx now live in Colorado. At this point, nobody knows if that’s enough to maintain the population for the long-term.

As bureaucrats have dithered with the recovery plan for twelve years, Colorado’s forest landscapes have changed dramatically. Since the cats were listed as a threatened species, millions of acres of forests have died as waves of insects swarmed across the land. The rapid spread of spruce beetles in the heart of lynx habitat in the western San Juan Mountain Range is so new that biologists are unsure of how it will affect lynx, which rely on areas where snowshoe hares thrive by browsing on pine branches.

On the surface, setting recovery goals sounds simple. Pick a number — say 1,000 — then count the cats and measure up. That’s what’s been done for similar species, including the endangered Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona, where wildlife biologists are eying a very specific number in contained geographical areas.

But lynx were so rare to begin with that biologists never had a clear idea of what a non-threatened and self-sustaining population might look like.

“It’s a question mark whether we can develop science-based demographic goals for lynx,” said Montana-based USFWS biologist Jim Zelanak. “It’s a real challenging species to develop realistic recover goals.”

Along with Colorado’s reintroduced lynx, the wildcats live in scattered pockets across the northern Rockies, the interior Pacific Northwest and Maine, where the population has boomed to historic highs in the past few years. And at this point, it’s not even clear how a recovery plan, along with a related critical habitat map, would apply to lynx in Colorado, where they are holding their own without new federal rules.

Zelanak said the Fish and Wildlife Service is still trying to decide if the science supports designating critical habitat areas in the state, and how the Colorado population fits into the national recovery effort.

Even though the agency hasn’t completed the required planning, Zelanak said there has been short-term progress. Most lynx habitat in the West is on national forest land, and the Forest Service has changed its land-use plans and adopted some specific lynx conservation measures, including, for example, some restrictions on winter motorized use and nighttime ski resort grooming.

“The main reason for listing lynx as threatened in the first place was the lack of federal land regulations,” Zelanak said. “Even though we don’t have a recovery plan, a lot of progress has been made. All forest plans been amended to conserve lynx habitat … In many ways, the threats to lynx have been addressed.”

On the other hand, global warming and rapidly changing forest conditions have emerged as new threats that were only tangentially part of the initial listing decision.

“Climate change is likely to become an increasing threat to lynx and hare habitat. Their range could contract significantly,” said Zelanak.

That’s exactly why some wildlife advocates want to make sure that Colorado’s lynx are included in a federal recovery plan that would set aside critical habitat to help ensure their survival as Earth gets hotter. Under many climate projections, Colorado’s rugged high country could be a last-ditch climate sanctuary for lynx and other species as the snowpack starts disappearing at lower elevations.

If nothing else, the 14-year lynx ESA saga, with all its legal twists and turns and arcane planning efforts, suggests that there’s a need for fresh approaches to conservation planning. With climate change expected to bring fast and far-reaching change to western forests, wildlife managers need to have flexibility to adapt as trees die or as prey animals disappear.

But that type of adaptive management requires extensive monitoring and analyses, which all cost money. And Congress has been especially parsimonious when it comes to doling out funds for endangered species. Essentially, Congress seems unwilling to provide enough money to enforce its own laws, which means lynx, and other rare species, are left dangling between survival and extinction.


[Lynx in southern Colorado’s San Juan mountains. Photo by Tanya Shenk, Colorado Division of Wildlife.]