MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – A federal judge Wednesday ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit its critical habitat designation for the Canada lynx in Colorado and parts of Montana and Idaho.
U.S. District Chief Judge Dana Christensen found that the agency failed to comply with a court order that it use appropriate criteria in considering Colorado and specific portions of Idaho and Montana as critical lynx habitat.
Fish and Wildlife listed the lynx as threatened in 2000, triggering a 16-year battle over its alleged failure to designate critical habitat.
It took a federal lawsuit from environmentalists in the District of Columbia to kick Fish and Wildlife into gear. Its November 2006 final rule designated 1,841 square miles for Canada lynx in four units nationwide.
Fish and Wildlife revisited the designation on its own and in February 2009 published a final rule designating 39,000 square miles of critical habitat in five units, in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington.
Three months later, environmental groups challenged that designation in court, calling it grossly inadequate for the lynx’s survival.
A Montana court found in Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Lyder (2010), that Fish and Wildlife had not collected enough data to show that portions of Montana and Idaho lacked the “primary constituent elements (PCE)” for critical lynx habitat. The court also found that Colorado was wrongfully excluded from consideration based on lack of data that shows the lynx population in the state is self-sustaining.
The court ordered the final rule remanded for further consideration.
Fish and Wildlife published its revised designation in September 2014, which still excluded the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, as well as forests in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.
Two groups then filed lawsuits that were consolidated. WildEarth Guardians and others alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act and both sides sought summary judgment.
The plaintiffs claimed that Fish and Wildlife did not use the best available science, used an “undefined metric” to exclude Colorado and analyzed the amount of necessary critical habitat “using criteria not enumerated in the PCE.”
Fish and Wildlife insisted that while Colorado possesses primary constituent elements of habitat, it does not have enough to sustain a successfully reproducing population.
Judge Christensen disagreed.
“When it published the September 2014 final rule designation lynx critical habitat in the United States, the Service erred by: (1) excluding the state of Colorado from the designation, based upon an improper application of the lynx PCE and ignoring the best available science; and (2) failing to comply with the court’s remand order in Lyder with respect to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Bitterroot, Nez Perce, Lolo and Helena National Forests,” she wrote in Wednesday’s 30-page order.
She gave her seal of approval to the rest of Fish and Wildlife’s designations, and said she believed that in the end the Canada lynx will be adequately protected.
“In all other respects, this most recent critical habitat designation is lawful and satisfied the Service’s statutory mandate under the ESA,” Christensen wrote. “As the multi-year effort to protect the landscapes required by the lynx continues, the court is confident that the final product will, as the ESA demands, ‘conserve to the extent practicable” the Canada lynx.”
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