Judge orders U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise a 2009 critical habitat designation that didn’t include any federal lands in the Southern Rockies
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it excluded Colorado from a critical habitat designation for threatened Canada Lynx.
U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider its 2009 decision and propose a revised habitat designation. The court decision came after a number of environmental groups sued the agency over the decision.
Conservation groups are hopeful the revised designation will include lands in Colorado and the rest of the Southern Rockies.
“The decision takes away all their reasons for not designating critical habitat in Colorado,” said Paige Bonaker, staff biologist with the Center for Native Ecosystems.
The coalition includes the Sierra Club, Center for Native Ecosystems, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Native Ecosystems Council. The groups argued that the Southern Rockies and portions of the Northern Rockies in Montana and Idaho that were excluded provide vital high-elevation habitat for lynx.
Proving that a federal agency has made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision can be difficult, given that courts tend to give the government a lot of latitude, but in this case, the judge seemed to say it was a no-brainer, based on the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
“The lynx in the Southern Rockies are thriving, but we have to protect the places they live if they are going to continue to do so,” said Bonaker. “Historically, lynx populations existed in Colorado, and the reintroduction program in the Southern Rockies has been very successful. Lynx in the Southern Rockies are important to the survival of the species in the United States.”
Nearly every decision the agency has made — or not made — with regard to lynx has been successfully challenged in court, dating back to the original listing decision. The habitat designation for lynx was further muddied by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s admission that Julie McDonald, a top official appointed during the Bush administration improperly interfered with the process. Documents showed that McDonald played politics with a number of endangered species decisions, blocking protections for greater sage-grouse and white-tailed prairie dogs.
If the agency designates critical habitat in Colorado, it would add another layer of scrutiny to logging and forest health projects, ski area expansions and other proposed activities on federal lands. Critical habitat designation does not affect private lands.
“It’s a more stringent standard … They have to look if habitat will be adversely affected,” Bonaker said. The existing critical habitat designation, covering lands in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming, will remain in place until the agency revises the designation, she added.
Biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service said they hadn’t read the court ruling yet, so they couldn’t respond in detail. but in general, critical habitat designation adds another layer of review for projects or activities on any land that’s deemed critical to the survival of the species , said Susan Lanier, with the agency’s regional office in Denver.
Judge Malloy determined that the agency’s decision was arbitrary and based on a “murky metric.”
“The purpose of critical habitat designation is to promote the recovery of the species. The Service is required to designate the geographical areas with the features necessary to promote that goal. By requiring proof that an area already hosts a recovered viable population before it can be designated, the Service created a metric more stringent than, and contrary to, what the (Endangered Species Act) dictates,” he wrote in his ruling.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service used backwards logic,” said Bonaker. “It said that populations have to be self-sustaining before they will grant the necessary habitat protections the animals need to become self-sustaining.”
“This is a great victory for the Canada lynx and everyone who cares about its future,” said Eric Huber, Sierra Club senior staff attorney. “The Rocky Mountain high country and forests are vital to lynx survival and recovery, and the federal judge was right to take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to task for excluding these areas from protection.”
With Thursday’s decision by Judge Malloy, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service must reexamine lynx habitat in the three states specified in the ruling (Colorado, Idaho, and Montana) and propose a revised critical habitat designation. Though the ruling does not guarantee that additional habitat will be designated, it does ensure that interested parties will soon have another opportunity to provide the Service with information relevant to the lynx populations in those states.
Filed under: endangered species, Environment, Summit County Colorado, wildlife Tagged: | Canada lynx, endangered species, lynx critical habitat, Summit County Colorado, Summit County News, Summit Voice, threatened lynx, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service