Lynx left out of the loop
San Juans not included in critical lynx habitat

SideStory: Reward offered for lynx poachers

An adult lynx roams the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains last winter. This particular lynx was released near Creede as part of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s reintroduction effort, which at least one advocate says may be in danger after a recent federal designation./Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife

by Will Sands

Canada lynx appear to be getting the short end of the federal government’s stick. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated 1,841 square miles in the Rocky Mountains as “critical lynx habitat.” However, the amount is well below the 18,000 square miles originally proposed for designation. Plus, not one square inch of the land is located in Colorado despite the ongoing effort to reintroduce the endangered animals here.

Canada lynx are relatively abundant in the Northern Rockies and in Canada. At one time, this abundance also existed in the Southern Rockies and the San Juan Mountains. However, the cats were driven to the point of extinction in the region by trapping and hunting, habitat degradation, highway mortality, and other impacts. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is continuing to work to undo this damage.

This was the sixth year the DOW reintroduced Canada lynx into the San Juan Mountains, and the animals have adapted well to the heavily wooded, high-altitude terrain in the region. DOW biologists estimate that about 200 adult lynx are now roaming Colorado’s south and central mountains. They have also documented the birth of 105 kittens in the last three years.

Wildlife advocates were hoping these new residents would receive some added protection from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency is required by the Endangered Species Act to designate “critical habitat” and prohibit any activities that would damage the land or hinder the endangered animals’ survival. However, last week, the service announced that just a fraction of the proposed 18,000 square miles had made the cut. Plus, all of the designated land is within national parks, areas with existing protection.

The agency did admit that the designation was a shadow of its former self, and noted that areas including “lands managed for commercial forestry” had not been considered. Nonetheless, Mitch King, USFWS director of the Mountain-Prairie Region, said the exercise represented progress toward better conservation of an endangered species.

“We appreciate the willingness of landowners and land managers to cooperate with the service and others in efforts to better understand and conserve lynx,” he said. “These partnerships

afford us the opportunity to learn more about the ecology and recovery of imperiled species.”

Rob Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, took a different view of the designation. “Basically, what they did is nothing,” he said. “This decision is reflective of a long-standing policy from the Bush Administration to avoid designating critical habitat, and yet lynx need very special habitat. They are not animals that can set up shop anywhere.”

The Division of Wildlife reacted to last week’s announcement much more calmly. Joe Lewandowski, public information specialist for the DOW’s Southwest Region, said that the state agency had low expectations, despite the successful reintroduction of the species. “This is the southernmost end of the lynx range,” Joe Lewandowski, public information specialist for the DOW’s Southwest Region. “We’ve always known that having this designated a critical area was in question, especially since we’re so far from the prime northern habitat.”

Designation or no designation, the state agency is forging ahead with lynx reintroduction in the southern and central mountains. “This designation won’t harm our efforts,” Lewandowski said. “We will continue our program, and we feel confident that the lynx are getting a good foothold and adapting well in the region.”

Lewandowski said the vastness of public lands in Southwest Colorado as well as a number of roadless areas have facilitated the reintroduction’s success. The absence of a critical habitat designation should not derail the effort, he said.

“Lynx are really solitary animals,” he said. “They thrive in the dark timber and moist areas that are common in our national forest land in the region. We’re fortunate to have so much contiguous national forest here.”

However, without a critical habitat designation, much of this national forest could be opened to logging and road building, according to Edward at Sinapu. With this in mind, he said he believes the Fish and Wildlife Service decision imperils the Colorado reintroduction effort.

“I think it basically puts the long-term success of Colorado’s lynx reintroduction in question,” Edward said. “Absent critical habitat protection, lynx may face the destruction of habitat from logging and road building and the loss of the characteristics critical habitat is supposed to protect.”

Several groups including Sinapu are openly protesting the designation. No firm direction has been set, but there are already whispers of coming litigation.

“One thing is very clear,” Edward concluded. “Critical habitat is crucial to the long-term survival of the lynx. It’s also clear that the Bush Administration has no real interest in that survival.” •

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