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Feds revise critical habitat proposal for lynx

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Proposed critical habitat for lynx in the northern Rockies, as mapped by the USFWS.

Colorado once again left out of critical habitat zone

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Working under a court order, federal biologists have finished a revision of a critical habitat designation for threatened lynx — but once again, Colorado was left out of the equation.

The latest critical habitat designation, subject to a 90-day comment period, would cover about  41,547 square miles within the boundaries of five critical habitat units in the states of Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.

Colorado wasn’t included because the agency doesn’t believe that the state’s population is essential to the long-term conservation of the species, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Zelenak.

“We looked at the historical record and the biological history of lynx in Colorado and it’s just not clear that Colorado ever supported a persistent population over time … We recognize the potential for lynx in the southern Rockies … but our approach has been to look at those places with persistent populations over time. We want to feel fairly certain that an area has the physical attributes needed to support lynx,” Zelenak said.

The critical habitat designation has been the focal point of political and legal battles for several years. Most recently, a U.S. District Court judge deemed the previous iteration (finalized in February 2008) unlawful and ordered the agency back to the drawing board.

In a release, the USFWS said the designation would ensure that all lynx in the contiguous United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act identifies areas proposed for critical habitat based on where the best science indicates the habitat could support lynx populations over time.

“The Service’s proposal to revise the boundaries of five critical habitat units is the first step in tailoring protections for Canada lynx to its unique conservation needs,” USFWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh said in a statement.

Conservation advocates who sought wanted to see more areas designated were disappointed with the latest proposal.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is clearly ignoring the judges order, in my opinion,” said Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity. “We’re probably going to have to take them back to court again,” he said.

The 2010 federal court decision specifically ordered the USFWS to go back and reconsider its decision to exclude the Southern Rockies from the critical habitat designation, and it’s not clear that the latest proposal meets the standards set by the judge, said Sierra Club attorney Eric Huber, who argued the case on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups.

“Clearly, Colorado is critical habitat for the lynx that live here,” Huber said.

Lynx were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2000, when they were listed as threatened throughout theri range in the contiguous United States. The Service designated critical habitat for the species in 2006 and revised the designation in 2009 to include habitat in six northern states.

The current proposal includes most of the areas designated in 2009, as well as additional private timber lands in northern Maine, and Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lands in northwestern Wyoming.

Public comments on the proposed rule will be accepted until December 26, 2013. The Service is particularly interested in receiving comment on the inclusion of certain lands in the designation, as well as the appropriateness of excluding lands covered by management plans that provide for conservation of the lynx.

A public hearing will be held on the proposed rule on Monday, November 25, 2013, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel, 2301 Colonial Drive, Helena, Montana, 59601. The formal public hearing will be preceded by an open house and general information meeting from 2 to 5 p.m. An informational public meeting will be held on Monday, November 4, 2013, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the George W. Stearns High School auditorium at 199 State Street, Millinocket, Maine, 04462.

For more information on the proposal and the associated maps by state of the proposed revised critical habitat designation, please visit the Canada lynx webpage:  http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/lynx/index.htm. Comments and information may be hand delivered or mailed to the Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Arlington, VA 22203. Comments and information may be submitted electronically via the federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.

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