Federal judge says Forest Service must consider critical habitat designations in regional forest plan guidance for lynx

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Federal agencies rebuked for violating Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Decision will trigger new reviews of forest plans and projects in northern Rockies

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The U.S. Forest Service has once again been called out for failing to live up to its legal obligations to protect endangered species, this time by a federal judge in Montana, who ruled last week that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a regional forest plan amendment.

Dana L. Christensen, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the State of Montana, ordered the Forest Service to re-initiate consultation, but did not block any specific projects on the affected forests, saying that plaintiffs couldn’t show any “irreparable harm.”

The Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did formally address the lynx amendment with a consultation starting in 2005, ending with a finding that the lynx amendment wouldn’t jeopardize lynx across the northern Rockies — but that was before the fish and wildlife service designated critical habitat for the wild cats.

The USFWS finalized a critical habitat designation in 2009, covering lands on 11 national forests in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including lynx habitats. Conservation groups raised concerns that that lynx amendment and the critical habitat designation didn’t mesh and later sued the Forest Service for failing to start a new consultation process with the USFWS.

The Forest Service’s argument that its forest plans are not subject to legal challenge ring particularly hollow considering that lynx were listed primarily because of the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms.

Judge Christensen also noted that, on some forests in the region, the Forest Service has voluntarily re-initiated consultation since critical habitat was designation, showing that the agency retains discretionary control over the lynx amendment.

The ruling upholds the idea that “big-picture” management is needed to ensure lynx conservation and recovery, and the Forest Service’s habitual tendency to try and piecemeal approval of projects without considering the cumulative impacts doesn’t meet the high standards of the Endangered Species Act.

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One Response

  1. […] Dana L. Christensen, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the State of Montana, ordered the Forest Service to re-initiate consultation, but did not block any specific projects on the affected forests, saying that plaintiffs couldn’t show any “irreparable harm.” Read entire article at http://summitcountyvoice.com/2013/05/21/federal-judge-says-forest-service-must-consider-critical-hab… […]

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