November 9, 2006
PORTLAND, Maine -- Wildlife advocates say they plan to challenge the federal government's decision to reject the designation of more than 10,000 square miles in Maine's North Woods as critical habitat for Canada lynx.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the potential benefits of the added regulation would be outweighed by the risk of alienating timber companies and other landowners who would be subject to more federal oversight, a biologist with the agency said Wednesday.
"Our concern is maintaining these relationships with these landowners," said Lori Nordstrom. "We were concerned that the landowners would not work with us -- allow researchers on their land or provide funding (for scientists) or cooperate with ongoing lynx research."
After a lawsuit by wildlife protection groups, the lynx was listed in 2000 as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. As part of the status, the Fish and Wildlife Service was required to determine critical habitat for the forest-dwelling cat, with an eye to places with piles of woody debris for dens and populations of snowshoe hares as prey.
Northern Maine is home to the only breeding population of Canada lynx in the eastern U.S., and conservationists say the federal decision imperils its survival. Some say they'll fight the rule in Congress and in the courts.
"This is virtually guaranteed to go into litigation and I can't imagine an easier target than this decision," said John Kostyack, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C.
A total of 18,031 square miles in Maine, Minnesota, Montana and Washington were proposed as critical habitat for lynx, with the largest block covering the northern third of Maine. But after hearing from timberland owners who wanted to be exempt and wildlife advocates who sought more aggressive action, the Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a final critical-habitat rule that covers 1,841 square miles within national parks in Minnesota, Montana and Washington.
Nordstrom said imposing the designation on reluctant landowners would do little for the lynx because impacts on the species are already reviewed under other rules and procedures.
"The position of the fish and wildlife service is that there isn't a substantial benefit in designating critical habitat," Nordstrom said. "Whether it's designated as critical habitat or not, these consultations are still taking place and will continue."
In seeking an exemption for its members, the Maine Forest Products Council argued that its logging practices are the reason Maine has such good habitat for the lynx in the first place and that more regulation is unnecessary.
"We know we have a healthy, breeding population and that critical-habitat designation wasn't going to accomplish a lot," said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the council.
Jody Jones, a biologist at Maine Audubon, faulted the Fish and Wildlife Service for not doing its job.
"For regulators to say, 'Well, the landowners don't want it,' that's not an appropriate reaction," she said. "We wouldn't have clean air and clean water if we took that approach and we won't have Canada lynx if we take that approach."