Routine studies delayed, protections lagging …
The U.S. Forest Service started dragging its feet on protecting lynx ever since the wild cat was designated as a threatened species in 2000, and that pattern continues to this day. The Center for Biological Diversity has released a document suggesting that the agency’s Northern Rockies office dawdled for eight months working on a routine biological assessment that is often done in just a few weeks.
Superficially at issue are regional forest plans for mining and logging in and near lynx habitat, but the CBD’s conservation expert said the delay is more disturbing because it’s linked with a GOP effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
“The Forest Service really acted in bad faith on the Canada lynx,” CBD government affairs director Brett Hartl said in a statement. “The agency dragged its feet for months on this crucial assessment, attempting to give Montana’s senators an excuse for trying to gut the Endangered Species Act. This document show how ridiculous that pretext really is. Wildlife on the brink shouldn’t have to suffer from this cynical behavior.”
Citing logging projects delayed by the lynx assessment, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced sweeping legislation that would dismantle key endangered species protections on public lands.
The routine assessments are part of a consultation process required to ensure that agencies properly protect endangered species. They normally take weeks — or a month at the most — to complete. Once they are complete, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can then finish the consultation process, which scientific research has shown is usually completed within the 90-day timeframe required under law.
In 2015, a federal court upheld the long-standing requirement that the agency ensures its actions do not destroy critical habitat for the Canada lynx, a fundamental tenet of the Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service then tried appealing the decision to the Supreme Court. In October 2016 the appeal was rejected, ending all legal challenges. With no recourse available except a Congressional bailout, the Forest Service moved extremely slowly in complying with the Endangered Species Act, completing the lynx habitat assessment in July.
According to the CBD, Forest Service appears to have manufactured a crisis in hopes that Congress would step in. The legislation introduced by Danes and Tester would eliminate the requirement within the Endangered Species Act for the Forest Service and other agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the landscape or programmatic level — when, for example, the forest service is developing its national forest plans.
Under this legislation, if a forest management plan is already complete, federal agencies do not need to revise their plans if critical habitat for an endangered species is later designated or revised — or even if an additional species is designated as threatened or endangered on those lands.
“Montana’s senators want to undermine the Endangered Species Act just because the Forest Service was slow to act,” said Hartl. “The Canada lynx and other species threatened by mining and logging shouldn’t go unprotected because of one highly unusual delay.”
There is ample evidence, such as documents previously obtained by the Center, showing that if the Forest Service is on the ball, these consultations can be completed quickly. In June the nine national forests of the Sierra Nevada region completed a programmatic consultation in just 10 days following the designation of critical habitat for Yosemite toads and Sierra Nevada and mountain yellow-legged frogs.
“These programmatic consultations are really important for species because they require the Forest Service and other agencies to consider the cumulative impacts of their actions across the landscape on wide-ranging endangered species like the lynx,” said Hartl. “This prevents animals from being driven extinct in death-by-a-thousand-cuts scenarios, which is precisely the danger the lynx faces.”