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Environmental groups sued the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) last week arguing that the snow-melting effects of climate change make the agency’s designated lynx habitat inadequate.

“Lynx need deep snow. They have long paws and big feet. They can stay on top of the snow where there are competitors, like coyotes, which sink down,” says Michael Garrity, director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the lawsuit’s four plaintiffs. “So if the snowpack decreases then the lynx get driven out by their competitors. The FWS didn’t even look at that when they designated critical habitat, and as climate change occurs species will have to migrate to adapt to that. Maybe more will move north where there’ll still be more snow, and they need corridors to move to be able to do that.”

The suit, filed in District Court in Missoula, contends that the threatened Canadian lynx’s designated habitat in the West is “legally and biologically inadequate, underinclusive and incomplete” considering the species’ dependence on winter snow and boreal forests. The groups are pushing for more designated habitat primarily in Montana—in the Lolo, Bitterroot, Flathead, Helena, Lewis & Clark, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Gallatin national forests.

“This is the first lawsuit that I know of that says when [FWS] designates critical habitat, they need to take into account the future of that habitat as it relates to global warming,” say Sierra Club attorney Eric Huber.

In 2006, FWS designated 1,841 square miles of critical habitat for the lynx in Montana, Washington and Minnesota. A year later, former Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald was found to have manipulated and undermined scientific findings that may have influenced that designation. In February, the FWS upped the lynx’s habitat to approximately 39,000 square miles in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Approximately 10,102 square miles are in the Northern Rockies, primarily northwest Montana.

Critical habitat, as defined in the Endangered Species Act, constitutes areas essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species.
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