In Kalispell, on Jan. 10, citizens will have a chance to weigh in on critical habitat designations for the Canada Lynx, a species listed by the federal government as threatened, at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) public hearing.
Although final numbers have yet to be determined, critical lynx habitat could include up to 10,000 acres in western Montana, in a patchwork from Helena to the Canadian border.
What would happen to these lands as a result of their designation as critical habitat, and how such designation would impact both the lynx and human activity in northwest Montana, is unclear. Opponents of the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) mandate for critical habitat designation, including FWS itself, say it does little if anything to help listed species. FWS also says such habitat designations do little to alter human activity, but cost the agency large amounts of time and money.
Others, such as U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., say the designation of critical habitat hurts property owners. Conservationist groups including Defenders of Wildlife, on the other hand, say critical habitat designations are an integral part of the ESA.
The battle between FWS and conservationist groups such as Defenders of Wildlife over the issue is long-running.
The key components of habitat critical for lynx are heavy snow and snowshoe hares. The lynx as a species is specially adapted for heavy snow, with its long legs and cartoonishly big paws that act as snowshoes. Whereas other predators sink in powder, the lynx stays afloat in pursuit of its dietary mainstay, the snowshoe hare.
At one time lynx made their home in 16 of the contiguous United States, but by the 1950s over-trapping and habitat fragmentation caused by development left them stranded in parts of Maine, Washington and Montana only.
Since the 1990s, conservationist groups have tried to get the lynx listed under the ESA and designate critical habitat for it, but the effort has met with a resistant FWS.
Although FWS notes that the lynx was a potential candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species in 1982, the agency took no steps toward listing over the next 10 years. In 1992, Defenders of Wildlife and other conservationist groups petitioned FWS to list the lynx. The agency drew up a proposal to do so, but in 1994 the acting director of FWS rejected it.
Defenders of Wildlife sued FWS over the decision and won in early 1997. In response, FWS acknowledged that the lynx warranted listing, but concluded that other species held higher priority.
Defenders of Wildlife filed a second suit later in 1997, challenging FWS’s “warranted but precluded” decision. This time, FWS settled the suit out of court and agreed to begin work on listing the lynx. But while they did list the lynx, FWS declined to designate critical habitat for the animal, even though the agency is required to do so under the ESA.
Once again, Defenders sued and won. FWS was ordered to begin the process of designating critical habitat, and to report back to the court every 60 days on its progress, beginning in 2002. But each of the six reports filed after the ruling indicated that no work was being done to define critical habitat.
Defenders responded with yet another lawsuit, and succeeded in having the court require FWS to begin work on critical habitat for the lynx no later the Nov. 1, 2005, to be finished no later than Nov. 1, 2006.
With the Jan. 10 meeting set, FWS appears finally to be actively working on critical habitat designation, but grudgingly.
In a Nov. 9 press release announcing the scheduled public hearings, FWS downplays the importance of critical habitat, and by implication the hearings, writing: “In 30 years of implementing the ESA, the Service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while preventing the Service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits.”
FWS also gives space to explaining what critical habitat does not do: “The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands.”
It is also noted that the designation of critical habitat will not impact national forests or any other lands with plans for protecting lynx already in place.
According to FWS spokesperson Diane Katzenberger, designation will affect only activities on land that would require approval of funding from the federal government, such as widening of highways. But because the lynx is threatened, she notes, that would be true in any case.
Katzenberger admits designation of critical habitat could possibly be beneficial to the lynx by alerting people to the importance of habitat, but otherwise, “It doesn’t add to their protection.”
“We feel we would rather use the resources for different conservation actions,” Katzenberger says.
But Defenders of Wildlife defends critical habitat designations, claiming that species with designated critical habitat recover twice as fast as those without.
And in the final court decision forcing FWS to designate critical habitat, the judge rejected the claim that the agency’s resources for designating critical habitat are scarce, noting that in 2004, Congress allocated the largest amount ever to FWS for the specific purpose of designating critical habitat.
But while the impacts of critical lynx habitat are discussed at the Kalispell meeting, the U.S. Senate is preparing to debate a bill drafted by Rep. Pombo, passed this fall by the U.S. House, which proposes, among other changes to the Endangered Species Act, the elimination of critical habitat designations. With the possibility of Congress eliminating critical habitat designation as part of the ESA, and the very agency running public hearings on the issue describing the process as a waste of time and money, it will be a wonder if anyone shows up at the hearings at all.