MISSOULA, MT. — Late Friday, a federal court in Montana ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) failed to adequately protect imperiled lynx from the impacts of trapping in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“We are pleased the Service must now take a hard look at imposing conditions that truly protect lynx from trapping, which may include common sense approaches like trap check intervals and trap size limits,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Service’s primary responsibility is to conserve imperiled species like lynx, not facilitate cruel trapping.”
The U.S. is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the international treaty known for clamping down on the ivory trade. Under CITES, the Service regulates the export of pelts and other animal parts from bobcats and other “furbearers” from the U.S. through a permit and tagging system in conjunction with states, Tribes and individual trappers.
“We applaud the Court’s message to the Fish and Wildlife Service that it must take a more active role in preventing Canada lynx from being killed by trappers,” said Pete Frost with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Trappers are not qualified to take the lead on assessing injury to a threatened species like lynx.”
These pelts and animal parts are used in places including Russia and China for products such as fur coats, which can require 50 bobcat pelts each. The Service’s export program facilitates international trade in bobcat pelts, creating more incentive for trapping and harming lynx and other native wildlife. The Service has approved export of bobcat pelts from 14 states and three Tribal areas. In 2014 alone, the Service issued “CITES export tags” authorizing the export of nearly 60,000 bobcat pelts from the U.S. Lynx are commonly caught in traps set for bobcat in multiple states including Montana, Idaho and Maine.
When the Service finds that an activity it is authorizing may result in the “incidental take” of members of an ESA-listed species, the Service issues an Incidental Take Statement (ITS) which must specify the impact, reasonable measures to minimize the impact, and how to implement those measures. If activities that result in take comply with the terms of the ITS, that take is not a violation of the ESA.
The Court agreed with WildEarth Guardians that the Service’s ITS is fatally ambiguous, including that several fail-safes designed to trigger agency action are unclear and inadequate. The Court also found the Service failed to adequately define “injury” in the ITS calling it “both overly broad and underinclusive.” (Opinion at page 34). Finally, the Court held that the Service’s attempt to replace meaningful endangered species guidance with a brochure for trappers about minimizing take of lynx was not a “reasonable and prudent” measure as required by the ESA. The Court remanded the ITS to the Service.
Canada lynx are listed as threatened and protected by the ESA wherever they occur in the contiguous U.S. All take of lynx is therefore prohibited, including take in traps set to capture and kill bobcats. The Service consulted with its own program regarding the impact of its issuance of CITES export tags on imperiled lynx initially in 2001 and then again in 2012, resulting in a Biological Opinion which includes the ITS declared invalid in this lawsuit.
WildEarth Guardians was represented by Sarah McMillan and attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Center.