Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent to begin the process to remove Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled Canada lynx in the contiguous U.S. This move by one of the most anti-wildlife, anti-science, climate-denying administrations in American history shows a vicious indifference toward this iconic North American big cat’s continued existence in the lower 48 states. Stripping protections would be extremely risky for the survival of Canada lynx in the contiguous U.S. in the face of ongoing and emerging threats. Scientists estimate the lynx population across the lower 48 states at a perilously low 2,000 individuals.
The species and its habitat are threatened by climate change, logging, development, motorized access and trapping, which disturb and fragment the snow cat’s habitat. Canada lynx rely heavily on snowshoe hare, and like their preferred prey, are specially adapted to living in mature boreal forests with dense cover and deep snowpack.
Today’s final Species Status Assessment is significantly altered from the Service’s December 2016 draft, which outlined the above persistent threats and pointed to an increased need for protections for threatened Canada lynx concluding:
“Our evaluation generally concurs with the expert input we received. We believe that lynx populations and habitats in the [distinct population segment] will decline over time largely as a result of continued climate warming and associated impacts, which are likely to exacerbate the potential adverse effects of other factors (e.g., forest management, competition from other hare predators). Because resident lynx populations in all geographic units that currently support them are expected to be smaller and more fragmented and isolated in the future, each geographic unit and the DPS as a whole will be less resilient in the future. Our analyses and expert input suggest that resiliency will likely be adequate to foster persistence of resident lynx through midcentury in most of the five geographic units that currently support them. However, we believe it is very unlikely that resident lynx populations will persist through the end of this century in all of the geographic units that currently support them. That is, we believe that resiliency will be substantially diminished because of reduced population sizes and distributions throughout the DPS, with resulting extirpation of resident populations from two to three (of five) units more likely than not by the end of the century.
“We conclude that the functional extirpation of resident lynx populations from one or more geographic unit would demonstrate a loss of resiliency, reduced redundancy, and, possibly, reduced representation within the DPS. The probability of losses in resiliency, redundancy, and representation puts the Canada lynx DPS at increasing risk of extirpation through the end of this century.”
Today’s Species Status Assessment replaces the final paragraphs above with the following:
“Despite some reduced resiliency, we conclude that resident lynx populations are very likely to persist in all 5 units that currently support them (Units 1-4 and 6) in the near-term (2025) and in all or most of those units at 2050, with corresponding maintenance of redundancy and representation in the DPS over that time span. We and the experts we consulted have low confidence in predicting the likely conditions of DPS populations beyond 2050. That said, smaller, more isolated populations would be less resilient and more vulnerable to demographic and environmental stochasticity and genetic drift and, therefore, at higher risk of extirpation. Although predictions out to 2100 are highly uncertain, it is possible that resident lynx populations could be functionally extirpated from some units by the end of the century. Should future extirpations occur, this would indicate a loss of resiliency, reduced redundancy and representation, and an increased risk of extirpation of the DPS.”
Today’s report analyzes lynx population centers’ “probability of persistence”—their likelihood of surviving to the year 2100—under our present regulatory framework as follows:
Unit 1: Northern Maine – 50%
Unit 2: NE Minnesota – 35%
Unit 3: NW Montana/SE Idaho – 78%
Unit 4: Washington – 38%
Unit 5: Greater Yellowstone – 15%
Unit 6: Western Colorado – 50%
Scientists’ best estimates for Canada lynx units’ current populations are as follows:
Unit 1: Northern Maine – 1,000
Unit 2: NE Minnesota – 100-300
Unit 3: NW Montana/SE Idaho – 300
Unit 4: Washington – 54
Unit 5: Greater Yellowstone – no sightings in five years
Unit 6: Western Colorado – approx. 100
Today’s report identified declined or declining habitat in five of six Canada lynx population centers (p. 178).
In 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana also ruled that the Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to prepare a recovery plan for lynx after a delay of more than 12 years. The court ordered the Service to complete a recovery plan or make a determination that a recovery plan will not promote lynx conservation by Jan. 15, 2018.
“This is a political decision – pure and simple. This administration is throwing science out the window,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who has worked extensively to protect the species over the past decade. “The best science tells us that lynx are worse off than they were when originally listed in 2000 – we’re seeing lower numbers, more range contraction, and now understand the significant threats posed by climate change. This, however, was all papered-over by the administration just in time to shirk its legal obligation to issue a lynx recovery plan on Jan. 15.”
“The Service’s abrupt about face is an obvious attempt to abandon the good work toward recovering this climate-impacted species because saving lynx from extinction is not aligned with the Trump administrations climate-denial and emphasis on maximizing resource extraction on our public lands,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to stop playing politics and stick to the science clearly showing lynx need our help.”
If the Service moves forward with delisting Canada lynx in the contiguous U.S., the Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians, and our partners are prepared to challenge the deeply flawed move in court.
The Service first listed lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2000. However, at that time the Service failed to protect any lynx habitat, impeding the species’ survival and recovery. Lynx habitat received no protection until 2006, and that initial critical habitat designation fell short of meeting the rare cat’s needs and the ESA’s standards. After two additional lawsuits brought by conservationists challenging the Service’s critical habitat designations culminated in 2008 and 2010, a district court in Montana left the agency’s lynx habitat protection in place while remanding it to the Service for improvement. This resulted in the most recent and still inadequate habitat designation.
Studies show species with designated critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act are more than twice as likely to have increasing populations than those species without. Similarly, species with adequate habitat protection are less likely to suffer declining populations and more likely to be stable. The Endangered Species Act allows designation of both occupied and unoccupied habitat key to the recovery of listed species, and provides an extra layer of protection especially for animals like lynx that have an obligate relationship with a particular landscape type.