Thursday, May 07, 2009

Snowmobile groups go to court over lynx designation

Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 9:04 AM MDT

By JARED MILLER
Star-Tribune capital bureau

CHEYENNE -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow federal rules when it designated thousands of square miles in the West as critical habitat for the Canada lynx, according to a lawsuit filed this week by two snowmobiling groups.The Wyoming State Snowmobile Association and the Washington State Snowmobile Association filed the suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne.

The 24-page suit asks the court to withdraw the critical habitat designation, and also to force the federal agency to complete an extensive study of impacts the designation could have on recreation, wildfire management and other areas."The designation will impair the ability of the (Wyoming State Snowmobile Association) to maintain existing snowmobile trails and will make creation of new trails largely impossible," the lawsuit says.In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated about 39,000 square miles in six states as critical habitat for the Canada lynx, which is a cat federally classified as a threatened species.The designation protects areas considered essential for conserving the lynx population, including about 9,500 square miles in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas in Wyoming.The snowmobiling groups insist that the Fish and Wildlife Service, under federal rules, was required to complete an extensive environmental impact statement before imposing the lynx protection, but failed to do so.Instead, the federal agency conducted a much less thorough environmental assessment and proceeded with the critical habitat designation, the lawsuit claims."The Fish and Wildlife Service relied on an inadequate environmental assessment that failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives, and failed to analyze reasonably foreseeable significant adverse effects of the rule, including the cumulative effects of the designation," the suit contends.The suit alleges that the impact of the critical habitat designation will be devastating to snowmobilers, who may be prohibited from removing downed trees and otherwise caring for established trails.The lynx habitat area is roughly the size of the state of Indiana and includes Wyoming's Continental Divide Trail system, which is one of the nation's finest trail networks, according to the snowmobile groups in their lawsuit."If the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association is unable to remove ... downed trees and to sufficiently maintain these trails, its ability to use existing trails and to more generally recreate on these designated lands will be significantly restricted," the suit contends.In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the federal rule will restrict or prohibit forest management practices necessary to prevent catastrophic forest fires, disease and insect infestations."The Service admits that the critical habitat designation will restrict and/or prohibit fuel reduction projects and pre-commercial thinning -- both of which are considered to be essential practices for ensuring forest health, forest fire resiliency and for preventing insect infestations," the lawsuit alleges.The suit asks the court to withdraw the critical habitat designation pending completion of a full EIS, and to reimburse the snowmobile groups the cost of attorney fees.An employee at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Denver said the lawsuit was not expected for another 30 days, and the agency did not have any comment.Meanwhile, another lawsuit over lynx habitat is expect soon.In March, a cadre of environmental groups threatened to take the U.S. Forest Service to court because they say the lynx protections in the critical habitat designation don't go far enough.The groups -- including the Sierra Club, Colorado Wild, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Great Old Broads for Wilderness -- insist that the critical habitat area is too small, according to The Associated Press.Specifically, they say it covers too little of Montana and does not include northeastern Washington and the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Contact capital bureau reporter Jared Miller at 307-632-1244 or jared.miller@trib.com. Read his blog at tribtown.trib.com/JaredMiller/blog.

http://www.trib.com/articles/2009/05/07/news/wyoming/51e48fc63b02f3a4872575ae0004548c.txt

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