Feds decide that the Canada lynx can slink for itself


Note: this is a sidebar to a news article titled "In one man's hands, this lynx became a teacher."

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the Canada lynx a place on the list of endangered species last December, conservation groups cried foul, saying the agency ignored the recommendations of its field biologists.

Politics pushed the decision, says Jasper Carlton, president of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colo., which has challenged the decision in federal court in Washington, D.C. (HCN, 5/15/95).

Carlton charges that upper-level officials in the agency caved in to pressure from the Forest Service and timber companies that want to log the Northern Rockies. "The Forest Service would have to make revisions of forest plans and set lower road-density standards, if the lynx were listed," he says.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's Denver chief for the listing and recovery of endangered species, Olin Bray, says that the recommendation from the regional office was reversed.

"Our draft proposal did propose the species for listing," Bray says, "but it was only a recommendation. The Washington office makes the final finding, as they have the authority to do so."

The federal finding goes against Washington state's decision to list the species as endangered in the northeastern Cascades. "This is the first time in history that the federal government has fought a state finding," Carlton says. "Usually it's the states that are fighting a decision."

Historically, the lynx once ranged through New England, New York, the upper Midwest and the Northern Rockies. A three-year review by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation found the lynx to be endangered in all areas except Idaho and Montana, where the animal is still threatened.

Data are sketchy, but all reports indicate the Northern Rockies support scattered pockets of healthy lynx populations.

Despite the lack of solid numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service finding last December downplays any threat to the lynx population in the lower 48: "The lynx, generally considered rare because of its secretive nature, is actually common throughout its northern America range." The agency also says the Rocky Mountain region represents the southernmost limit of the lynx's traditional range, and that it was never common there.

Just a local invasion?

The federal Wildlife Service relied heavily on trappers' logbooks of animal sightings and tracks, trapping records and state surveys. According to Brian Giddings, a biologist for the state of Montana, from 700 to 1,050 lynx roam the forests of Montana. He says the lynx are healthy and there's no need for an endangered listing.

Mike Roy of the National Wildlife Federation disagrees. He says Montana's monitoring is done in a "hit or miss fashion."

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the federal finding is its assertion that the number and range of the lynx south of the Canadian border depend on the dispersal of young animals from Canada. In essence, it says, when populations of the lynx's main prey, the snowshoe hare, increase north of the border, so does the lynx population, which pushes young lynx south into new territory in the U.S.

The Fish and Wildlife Service used the local invasion theory to justify its decision not to list the lynx. As long as the lynx population in Canada was not in trouble, the agency reasoned, low numbers in the lower 48 were no reason to panic and list the species.

Bill Ruediger of the U.S. Forest Service Region 1, who coordinates state, federal and nongovernmental research on carnivores like the lynx, doesn't buy it.

The invasion theory is "built on conjecture," says Ruediger. "Lynx in the Northern Rockies may be connected with those in Canada, but we sustain our own populations in the U.S."

Lynx habitat in the boreal forest of northern Canada is homogenous and unbroken, Ruediger adds. But in the U.S., the lynx homegrounds are "peninsula habitats," fragmented and patchy, located along the rugged mountain ranges.

Ruediger points out that to get to Montana, the lynx of northern Canada must pass through southern British Columbia and Alberta, where lynx habitat is patchy, as in Montana, Idaho and Washington.

"Everything is not fine in those provinces with the lynx either," he says.

Ruediger forwarded his committee's findings to the Fish and Wildlife Service's field office in Helena, which passed it on to the Denver office along with its own recommendation to list the species as endangered. The final decision ignored the committee report.