For the third time in ten years, a judge orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider critical habitat for lynx in Colorado

‘The Service’s own representations suggest that parts of Colorado constitute suitable critical habitat, appropriate for designation’

A lynx in the Colorado high country. Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife/Tanya Shenk.
This Colorado Division of Wildlife map gives a general idea of the distribution of lynx in the Rockies through 2007.
A Colorado Division of Wildlife map gives a general idea of the distribution of lynx in the Rockies through 2007.

*For more detailed info, visit the Summit Voice lynx archive

Staff Report

A federal judge in Montana has once again 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 lynx. In the end, the rare cat may yet get some protected sanctuaries in the Colorado high county.

In a Sept. 7 ruling, Chief District Judge Dana L. Christensen said the agency’s decision is arbitrary and capricious, and “offends the ESA.” The court ordered the USFWS to develop a new critical habitat designation that complies with the law. The order also covers parts of Montana and Idaho.

The lynx saga stretches back to 2000, when the USFWS declared lynx to be an endangered species in 14 states. At the time, the agency delayed critical habitat mapping, citing budget concerns and personnel restraints. After the agency dawdled for a few years, conservation groups won a court decision setting a deadline for critical habitat designation. The 2006 rule covered only about 1,800 square miles, and was immediately criticized by wildlife conservation advocates as being tinged by political influence, a rampant problem under the Bush administration.

A revised 2009 critical habitat map for lynx covered 39,000 square miles of critical habitat over five units in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. That led to yet another lawsuit, and another court decision showing the USFWS “ran afoul of the ESA with regard to its treatment of occupied critical habitat.”

That led to a 2014 revision, which was the subject of the current lawsuit and court order, which rejected the USFWS assertion that Colorado doesn’t include habitat worthy of designation as a critical habitat. The very fact that reintroduced lynx have persisted in the state for the past 15 years is a clear sign that the habitat includes the necessary elements that meet the needs of the species, Judge Christensen wrote. Here’s a key excerpt from the ruling:

“These are eminently logical concepts—no species will breed in the absence of sufficient resources for both parent and offspring, and no population sustains itself, absent immigration, without some level of reproduction. Yet, in the September 2014 final rule, the Service abandoned these ideas when it came to Colorado. Instead, the Service concluded that notwithstanding the successful seventeen-year campaign to reintroduce lynx to Colorado, the state’s less-than-ideal hare densities mean not a single acre of critical habitat exists there, and that “the lynx population in Colorado is beneficial, but not essential, for recovery.” (FR-005275.) Given that evidence cited by the Service in the September 2014 final rule shows that a reproducing lynx population exists in Colorado, the Service’s failure, on account of marginal hare densities, to designate critical habitat to protect that population and aid in its maintenance is arbitrary, capricious, and “offends the ESA … The Service’s own representations suggest that parts of Colorado constitute suitable critical habitat, appropriate for designation.”

“This decision gives the lynx a fighting chance to not only survive – but recover – in the southern Rockies,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the conservation community in the lawsuit. “We’re hopeful this decision will mark a turning point for lynx conservation in in the heart of southern Rockies lynx habitat.”

Lynx habitat is threatened across the West by climate change, roads,, motorized recreation, ski area expansions and logging. The cats need undisturbed areas for foraging and breeding, as well as protected movement corridors to ensure genetic diversity.  The court found the Service failed to follow the science showing that lynx are successfully reproducing in Colorado, and therefore excluding Colorado from the cat’s critical habitat designation “runs counter to the evidence before the agency and frustrates the purpose of the ESA.”

“With increasing threats from climate change and development, it’s long past time lynx receive every possible protection, including safeguards for the rare cat’s southern Rockies habitat,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to stop playing politics and start meeting its obligations to recover our most imperiled species, including lynx.”






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