By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian
Time is getting short for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
By Nov. 1, the agency has to decide whether or not to designate thousands of acres as critical habitat for the federally threatened Canada lynx.
Between now and then, Fish and Wildlife Service officials need to sift through a whole new batch of comments on a recently released economic analysis - and decide on a request by Plum Creek Timber Co. to exclude nearly 1 million acres of private timberlands in Montana and Maine.
“We're operating under a tight time frame,” said Lori Nordstrom, the Fish and Wildlife Service's lead lynx biologist. “We have a court-ordered deadline of Nov. 1 to have the final critical habitat designation signed.”
The FWS received about 8,000 comments after releasing its proposal to designate 3,549 square miles of Montana and Idaho as critical habitat last year. The proposal also affected lands in Maine, Minnesota and Washington.
“We heard lots of general support for the proposal and lots of opposition,” Nordstrom said.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, lands designated as critical habitat contain features considered essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. The designation doesn't affect land ownership or establish any sort of refuge or preserve on either federal or private lands. It also doesn't give the public or government access to private land.
Private landowners can be impacted by the designation if they need a federal permit or use federal funding for a project on their land.
Plum Creek wants its lands in Montana and Maine exempted from the designation.
The company doesn't believe that the majority of its lands in Montana meet the lynx critical habitat definition, said Kathy Budinick, Plum Creek's director of communications.
The key feature of lynx habitat is boreal forest, she said. In Montana, boreal forests are stands where more than half of the trees are spruce and subalpine fir. Only about 11 percent of Plum Creek lands under consideration as lynx critical habitat have boreal forests, she said.
“Plum Creek practices and programs provide for lynx conservation in areas with suitable lynx habitat,” Budinick said. “The continued implementation of these practices will provide for lynx and their prey in the future. There is no need for additional management measures that might be afforded by designating Plum Creek lands as critical habitat.”
The company collaborates with state and federal agencies on many cooperative management and survey efforts, habitat enhancements and projects for endangered species. It has a long history of involvement with the Endangered Species Act, including five habitat conservation plans and conservation agreements, Budinick said.
Eight Montana conservation groups want the Fish and Wildlife Service to reject Plum Creek's request.
The groups said excluding Plum Creek's lands from the designation would significantly reduce the chances for lynx recovery, while facilitating Plum Creek's conversion of forest land to subdivisions.
In the Seeley Lake Ranger District - the area considered Montana's largest stronghold for lynx - Plum Creek lands represent more than 30 percent of the region that was analyzed, according to the groups.
“We owe it to future generations to protect endangered species and the places they call home,” said Arlene Montgomery of the Friends of the Wild Swan. “It's disappointing that the largest private landowner in Montana and the U.S. would seek to shirk its responsibility to our wildlife and habitat.”
Plum Creek owns about 80,000 acres in the Swan Valley. The company is in the process of selling 24,000 acres in the Swan, of which 10,000 acres are earmarked for private development, Montgomery said.
The company has sold several large holdings in Montana already, and has announced plans to sell off more, according to the groups. The likelihood the company will continue on that path poses a significant threat to the lynx and requires special management, they said.
“The Bush administration should not give a sweetheart deal to the Plum Creek Corp.,” said Kim Davitt of American Wildlands. “We all need to uphold our responsibility to be good stewards of our land. Why should Plum Creek get a free pass?”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments through Oct. 11 on its recently released economic analysis of the lynx critical habitat designation.
The analysis estimates it will cost $175 million to
$889 million over the next 20 years to designate 18,031 square miles of critical habitat for the species. About 91 percent of those costs would be related to managing timber.
Some private landowners and the state's timber industry will likely feel the pinch, said Julia Altemus of the Montana Logging Association.
Once the designation is made, both private landowners who depend on the federal Farm Bill to help pay for forestry work and the U.S. Forest Service will have to look at cumulative impacts on neighboring land each time they plan a project, Altemus said.
The result will likely be less acreage available for active timber management, she said.
“It's kind of a Catch-22,” Altemus said. “We're not even sure where the lynx are. We were hoping to have a little more information about the lynx themselves before we went through this process.”
Andrew Hawley, a Defenders of Wildlife attorney, called the Fish and Wildlife Service's economic analysis skewed. Defenders of Wildlife sued the government to force the critical habitat designation.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service takes a hard look at the economic costs of designating critical habitat, Hawley said it doesn't consider the economic benefits of protecting habitat.
“Maintaining habitat in its natural state has economic benefits,” he said. “Hunters, anglers and campers receive direct benefits in that regard.”
Have your say
Want to comment on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's economic analysis? Comments may be submitted to: Field Supervisor, Montana Ecological Services Field Office, 585 Shepard Way, Helena, MT 59601. Comments may also be sent by e-mail to email@example.com (include RIN 1018-AU52 in the subject line). Copies of the analysis may be obtained by downloading it from http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/mammals/lynx. Comments will be accepted until Oct. 11.