Proposal to delist lynx conjures conflict

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A female Canadian lynx heading for the woods near South Fork, Colo. (AP Photo/Jack Smith, File)

The new millennium brought a new challenge for Lorin Hicks.

For years, Hicks has worked as a wildlife biologist for Weyerhaeuser and its predecessor, Plum Creek Timber Co., studying the inhabitants of Northwest Montana’s sensitive forests.

He gained a new research focus in 2000, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Continental U.S. population segment of Canada lynx as a threatened species. That move required the agencies that manage area forests to take the lynx’s well-being into account.

To aid that process, Weyerhaeuser has “been involved with co-operative research with the University of Montana, and the U.S. Forest Service, going back to time of listing,” he said. This research has shed light on how these reclusive cats live and hunt in the area, one of six zones where their habitat dips below the U.S.-Canada border.

For the past 18 years, the region has seen bitter fights about how to balance the lynx’s needs with those of companies and residents. Then, in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that it would propose taking the lynx off the “threatened” list.

Hicks, and other local scientists, companies, politicians, and environmentalists, are closely watching what happens next. Their varied stances on the proposal foretell more conflicts over these felines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) cited “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” in its decision to list the lynx. Per the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies would have to consult with the FWS on protecting the lynx before they granted permits, began construction, or allowed or undertook any kind of activity on the lynx’s habitat.

That includes Northwest Montana’s dense, snowy forests. The lynx are difficult to count and experience swings in population, but scientists estimate that this area can support 200 to 300 of these cats. Hicks called Seeley Lake, northeast of Missoula, “quite a hotspot” for lynx in the lower 48.

“There’s three biological needs that are met by Canada lynx in the forest ecosystem,” Hicks explained. The first is denning habitat. “We found that lynx were using downed logs” for shelter.

Forests also enable stealthy movement. Lynx “tend to use general forested areas as movement corridors going from one stand or one location to another,” he said. It’s also common to see them go through clearings.

Finally, forests provide hunting grounds. With their lithe build, speckled fur and large paws, lynx are highly adapted to stalking their primary food source: snowshoe hares, which tend to gather under dense stands of evergreens. “Those areas tend to shelter snowshoe hares that are eating needles and such ... the lynx tend to key into those stands, because that’s where the highest density of snowshoe hares occurs.”

The lynx’s lifestyle can be at odds with foresters’ goals. “For us, it’s a balance,” Hicks explained. “We want to be able to thin our stands so they can grow more quickly.”

Striking this balance has been vital for the U.S. Forest Service, which has to have the FWS sign off on National Forest projects in endangered species habitat. In 2007, it adopted a set of changes, referred to as the “lynx amendments,” to the plans for 18 national forests, including Flathead and Kootenai.

The amendments set detailed requirements for permitted activities, from forestry to recreation, that could have affected them. After consultation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Biological Opinion that the actions were unlikely to harm the lynx.

In Hicks’s view, “the lynx strategy that the Forest Service and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] is implementing recognizes those three basic biological components of the forest” – denning, movement, and hunting.

Weyerhaeuser has felt a “very minimal” impact from these measures, as it owns its timber land. But he said the Seattle-based firm has incorporated the lynx’s needs into its practices – for example, using “adaptive thinning” to leave thick stands in place for the lynx.

But these steps aren’t enough in the eyes of many environmentalists.

“The lynx has only been listed a short while and they’ve done virtually nothing so far,” said Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition.

His group is allied with several organizations that have taken the state and federal governments to court over their lynx management. One case compelled Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to establish a “lynx protection zone” with special trapping regulations; another one required federal officials to complete a recovery plan for the species.

But the most consequential lawsuit was 2015’s Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service. In that case, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had illegally failed to re-enter consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Services after the latter agency expanded the lynx’s habitat to include several forest management projects. The ruling, and later ones citing it, stopped those projects.

Montana’s loggers are getting weary of litigation. Last fall, Paul McKenzie, lands and resource manager at F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company, told Congressman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., that “there’s a lot of uncertainty and difficulty in having access to our federal lands and logs...right now, we’re managing our forests based on how we don’t get sued, instead of what’s the best thing for on the ground.”

Amid this controversy, the question remains: Does the lynx need the protections of “threatened” status?

To gauge the population’s health, the Fish and Wildlife Service began crafting a “Species Status Assessment,” a detailed study of the lynx’s health and long-term prospects. It started with a Minneapolis meeting of public and academic lynx biologists in fall 2015.

One of the participants was Ron Moen, who researches the lynx at the Natural Resources Research Institute and Department of Biology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. At the time, he remembers, “I didn’t have any sense of a preconceived outcome, they were definitely asking for information.”

Drawing on their input, a team of FWS biologists prepared the assessment, releasing a draft in December 2016 and a final version last October. Then, on Jan. 11, the FWS announced that, “as a result of this status review, the Service will begin development of a proposed rule to delist the species.”

Opinions soon split over what the announcement meant. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, issued press releases hailing the species’ “recovery.” But some environmentalists took a more jaundiced view.

“We don’t believe that the threats to lynx have been abated,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan. “We think they’re increasing.”

Though Weyerhaeuser’s Hicks stressed lynx-friendly logging practices, Montgomery noted that the most recent Flathead National Forest Plan had been found likely to “adversely affect” the lynx. She also suspects that the Fish and Wildlife Service is delisting to avoid crafting a recovery plan for the species.

“In the meantime,” Montgomery continued, “we have new threats such as climate change.”

Warming climates bode ill for a snow-adapted predator like the lynx. “Climate models project reductions in the extent of boreal forest habitats and snow conditions thought necessary to support lynx,” the status assessment observed. “This would result in fewer, smaller, and more fragmented and isolated areas capable of supporting resident lynx.”

Among the six patches of lynx range along the Rocky Mountains and U.S.-Canada border, only Northwest Montana received better-than-even odds of supporting lynx by the end of the century.

That outlook raises the stakes for local management. Sandi Zellmer, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Montana School of Law and an expert on the Endangered Species Act, predicts that “if a final rule comes out delisting them, I’m sure there will be lawsuits flying.” Friends of the Wild Swan’s Montgomery wouldn’t commit to a lawsuit, but said that “it’s something we will certainly be looking at.”

If, when the dust settles, the Canada lynx is no longer listed, agencies will no longer need to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on lynx protection. But the furtive felines won’t be defenseless.

Bob Inman, carnivore and furbearer coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that “we have not discussed any plans to remove the lynx protection zone,” where trapping regulations aim to protect lynx. He also said that the state has no plans to make lynx hunting and trapping legal in the near future.

Weyerhaeuser’s Hicks, meanwhile, said that “I don’t see much change for us in a de-listing situation. We’ve already implemented what we feel to be a good strategy for lynx.” He added that it would be “cost-effective for us to continue.”

And in the National Forests, UM’s Zellmer predicts that the lynx would still be considered a “focal species” whose health tracks that of the ecosystem. Managing these species’ habitat, she said, “can be quite rigorous too, but it does not involve the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

And these measures are unlikely to satisfy wildlife advocates, she acknowledged. “The public’s imagination is really fired by these charismatic megafauna kinds of species,” she observed. “They do have interest groups that coalesce around them and are willing to devote resources to sue if they don’t feel like the species is being adequately protected.”

Wolverines, wolves, and grizzly bears have all taken this road in recent years. Now, the stealthy Canada lynx looks set to follow.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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