(CN) — With a Jan. 15 deadline looming to issue a recovery plan for the Canada lynx, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course Thursday and recommended taking the species off the list of animals threatened by extinction.
The agency released a statement concluding the Canada lynx may no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act and should be considered for delisting.
The Canada lynx was listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states in 2000, after years of declining populations and threats to their habitat on public lands. Canada lynx are found in Maine, northeast Minnesota, northwest Montana, northeast Idaho, north-central Washington and western Colorado. The cats feed mainly on snowshoe hare rabbits.
Thursday’s move to delist the lynx seemed to have caught the conservation community by surprise, after a 2016 draft report outlined the challenges that the species still faced.
“The Trump Administration’s decision that lynx no longer deserve federal protection is shameful, cavalier, and contrary to best available information,” Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest, said in a statement. “Lynx populations in Washington have declined since they were identified as a threatened species in 2000, and a significant amount of the habitat where they remain has been lost to recent large fires. It’s clear that lynx are facing extinction threats and warrant federal wildlife protections.”
This week’s decision came as a Jan. 15 deadline loomed under a 2014 court order from a federal judge in Montana that said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to develop a recovery plan for Canada lynx populations.
However, the service said the recommendation to delist the animals is the result of an extensive review of the “best available scientific information” and 20 years of working with state, federal, tribal, industry and other land managers on the conservation of the species. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will now begin the process to delist the species.
The 2016 draft assessment concluded the Canada lynx were at risk of going extinct in the lower 48 states by the end of the century.
“This move by one of the most anti-wildlife, anti-science, climate-denying administrations in American history shows a vicious indifference toward this iconic North American big cat’s continued existence in the lower 48 states,” the Western Environmental Law Center said in a statement. “Stripping protections would be extremely risky for the survival of Canada lynx in the contiguous U.S. in the face of ongoing and emerging threats.”
The center said this week’s final species status assessment was “significantly altered” from the 2016 draft, which had outlined the persistent threats to the Canada lynx, including climate change, logging and fires.
The draft assessment states, “We believe it is very unlikely that resident lynx populations will persist through the end of this century in all of the geographic units that currently support them.”
Protection for the Canada lynx has been fought in court and that fight will likely continue after this week’s announcement, according to Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. The group sued it will challenge the delisting in court if the Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward with the decision.
“This is a political decision – pure and simple. This administration is throwing science out the window,” Bishop said in a statement. “The best science tells us that lynx are worse off than they were when originally listed in 2000 – we’re seeing lower numbers, more range contraction, and now understand the significant threats posed by climate change. This, however, was all papered-over by the administration just in time to shirk its legal obligation to issue a lynx recovery plan on Jan. 15.”
Eric Huber, attorney for the Sierra Club, echoed Bishop’s sentiment.
“This is a sad day for those who cherish this beautiful wild creature, and those who believe the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decisions should be based on science not politics. Nothing has changed since the agency’s original report that justifies taking lynx off the endangered species list,” Huber said. “This decision, once again, is the product of the Trump administration’s desire to increase logging, oil and gas drilling and mining in lynx habitat. Sierra Club will vigorously oppose this action before the agency and protect the species in court.”
In 2014, a federal judge in Montana ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to prepare a recovery plan for the Canada lynx after a delay of more than 12 years, and ordered the service to complete a recovery plan or to make a determination that a recovery plan would not promote the species’ conservation by Jan. 15, 2018.
The service first listed the Canada lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. Its habitat was given federal protection in 2006, but that initial critical-habitat designation fell short of meeting the wild cat’s needs under the ESA standards, according to the Western Environmental Law Center.
After two lawsuits in 2008 and 2010 from conservationists challenged the service’s critical-habitat designation, the federal judge left the agency’s habitat protection in place while remanding the policy for improvement. This resulted in the most recent — but still inadequate — habitat designation, the conservation group said.
The chances are still slim for the Canada lynx in many areas being able to survive to the year 2100, according to this week’s special status assessment. The report says lynx in Washington have a 38 percent chance of meeting survival goals, a 78 percent chance in northwest Montana and Idaho, and a 15 percent chance in the Yellowstone National Park area, where there have been no sightings of the cats in more than five years.
There are an estimated 1,000 lynx in northern Maine; 300 in northwest Montana and Idaho; up to 300 in northeast Minnesota, and about 100 in western Colorado.
According to Bishop, wildlife species with designated critical habitats under the Endangered Species Act are more than twice as likely to see increasing populations than species without protections.
The recommendation to delist Canada lynx does immediately not remove the current Endangered Species Act protections for the species. The next step in the delisting process requires the service to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register, receive public comments, conduct a peer review and announce a final decision.