(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately protect endangered Canada lynx from being accidentally killed or injured by bobcat trappers, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the agency illegally allowed incidental harvest of lynx, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Canada lynx are listed as a threatened species under the ESA wherever they occur in the contiguous United States and all harvest of lynx is prohibited, including harvest in traps set to legally capture and kill bobcats.
The United States participates in a program that is designed to reduce illegal trade of endangered species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty aimed at clamping down on illegal exports.
Under the treaty, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service regulates the export of animal pelts and parts from bobcats and other furbearers through a permit and tagging system. The bobcat permits are issued in conjunction with states, tribes and trappers.
WildEarth Guardians, the lead plaintiff in the case along with the Center for Biological Diversity, argued that the agency does not do enough to prevent incidental injury to lynx by bobcat trappers.
Incidental harvest for lynx is set at two lynx that may be killed and two lynx that are injured annually. According to Molloy’s Friday order, since 2001 the threshold of two lynx killed and two lynx injured annually has not been met.
Plaintiffs challenged the “take” statement on the ground that the word “annually” is ambiguous, and could be interpreted to mean the requisite lynx taken in a single year, or that it must repeat in some undefined number of successive years.
The agency allows export of bobcat pelts from 14 states. In 2014, the agency issued export tags that authorized the export of roughly 60,000 bobcat pelts from the United States, the complaint said.
“The Service must now take a hard look at imposing conditions that truly protect lynx from trapping, which may include common sense approaches like trap check intervals and trap size limits,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Service’s primary responsibility is to conserve imperiled species like lynx, not facilitate … trapping.”
The agency’s export program facilitates international trade in bobcat pelts, which creates more incentive for trapping and harming lynx and other native wildlife, WildEarth Guardians claims.
Molloy agreed with WildEarth Guardians’ complaint that the agency’s incidental-take language is ambiguous, and he granted injunctive relief to the plaintiffs on the Endangered Species Act claims, but he denied plaintiffs’ claims under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Molloy ordered that the service review and clarify the “incidental take statement” on lynx for trappers and he gave the parties in the lawsuit until Nov. 9 to file an answer. In the meantime, the current lynx take statement and biological opinions are not set aside and will remain in effect until a different take statement for lynx is completed, Molloy ordered.
To meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, the service created a brochure to educate bobcat trappers about lynx. Plaintiffs argued that this brochure failed to minimize incidental take of lynx because it includes only recommendations, it does not require any rules or regulations to be promulgated by local management agencies and trappers are not required to read it.
“We applaud the Court’s message to the Fish and Wildlife Service that it must take a more active role in preventing Canada lynx from being killed by trappers,” Pete Frost with the Western Environmental Law Center said. “Trappers are not qualified to take the lead on assessing injury to a threatened species like lynx.”
The service said that the CITES export program is an administrative tool and has no connection to the frequency or methodology of trapping nationwide or at the specific locales where plaintiffs claim to have experienced adverse consequences from trapping, the judge’s order said.
However, statistics show otherwise, Molloy said.
According to the judge, service documents reference the relationship between the CITES program and trapping.
“Prohibition of export … would likely reduce the harvest of all five of these species,” he wrote.
Comments provided by state agencies and individual trappers further support the relationship between the CITES program and trapping harvest.
For example, a letter from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife states that eliminating the CITES tagging system or requiring trappers and hunters to secure tags on a case-by-case basis “would effectively end the harvest of these species and decrease overall trapping participation,” Molloy wrote.
The judge said an environmental assessment that the service created recognizes that “the absence of a foreign market would most likely lead to a decline in hunting and trapping license sales.”
Defendant intervenors are the Montana Trappers Association, the National Trappers Association and Fur Council of America.
WildEarth Guardians was represented by Sarah McMillan and attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Center.