By SUE MAJOR HOLMES
Associated Press Writer
Published/Last Modified on Monday, Dec 01, 2008 - 10:21:22 pm MST
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in two weeks whether to study if the Canada lynx should be protected in New Mexico under the Endangered Species Act.
The Dec. 15 deadline was set in a settlement filed Monday in a lawsuit the Western Environmental Law Center filed in April on behalf of conservation groups to force the federal agency to act on their petition to protect the lynx in New Mexico.
Lynx have been reintroduced in southern Colorado, and some have wandered south into New Mexico. Although the federal government lists the elusive, furry cats as threatened in 14 states, including Colorado, they have no federal protection in New Mexico.
"We think it's very important that the species be listed, given that it's traveling into northern New Mexico," said Rob Edward of WildEarth Guardians' Denver office, who said the settlement offers hope for the lynx in the Southwest.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., complained that Fish and Wildlife failed to act on the organizations' August 2007 petition within 90 days as required by the Endangered Species Act. The law gives the agency the deadline to decide whether a petition provides sufficient information for the agency to then determine whether a listing may be warranted.
Diane Katzenberger of the Fish and Wildlife office in Denver said the finding on the sufficiency of the petition's biological information will be sent to the Federal Register on Dec. 15. She said she expects it to be published the following week.
If Fish and Wildlife decides a study of the lynx is warranted, the agency will do a yearlong study aimed toward determining whether to list the animal or not.
The settlement "means we're no longer in legal limbo, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to this mandated first step, and at least we will have a decision from them whether they will take the next step toward listing," Edward said.
If the agency decides a study is not warranted, the conservation groups will have to reassess, he said. "We haven't made any firm commitment one way or the other," he said.
WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Native Ecosystems, Born Free USA, Animal Protection of New Mexico and Carson Forest Watch petitioned to extend protection to the lynx in New Mexico.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has released more than 200 lynx in Colorado since 1999, tracked about 60 of the animals into New Mexico's Taos, Rio Arriba and San Juan counties between 1999 and 2006, the lawsuit said. The conservation groups said at least 14 of those animals have been killed.
"It's time to give lynx in New Mexico the same protections that they are afforded in Colorado and other parts of the range," said Josh Pollack, executive director of the Center for Native Ecosystems. "We can't be good stewards of these rare cats if we don't legally protect them wherever they roam."
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org