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Canada lynx

Canada lynx

Saying a decade was long enough, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy this week ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to finish its recovery plan for the imperiled Canada lynx, giving the agency 30 days to present its proposal.

Environmental groups that sued the agency lauded the decision as a critical and long-sought win for the wild cat. FWS said it would review Molloy’s ruling and determine its next move.

“We are reviewing the judge’s decisions and working on a strategy to comply with it,” said Leith Edgar, public affairs specialist with the Mountain-Prairie Region of FWS.

The Western Environmental Law Center filed suit in March 2013 on behalf of several environmental groups, including western Montana’s Friends of the Wild Swan. The lawsuit called on the federal government to complete its recovery plan for the cat once and for all.

The agency listed the lynx as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act back in March 2000. Doing so required the agency to designate critical habitat for the animal and set in place a plan for its recovery – a task the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to complete.

Molloy’s ruling gave the agency 30 days to submit a schedule for completion of the recovery plan.

“They’ve kicked the can down the road for the past 14 years,” said Matthew Bishop, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “We’re thrilled with the ruling and hope we can work something out with FWS and complete a mutually agreeable plan.”

The Endangered Species Act directs FWS to prepare a recovery plan for all listed species, though it doesn’t include a timetable for the plan’s development.

The agency’s own guidelines, however, suggest that a recovery outline for the lynx should have been submitted to the regional office within 60 days of listing and approved within 90 days.

The guidelines also call for the plan’s release for public review within 18 months of listing, followed by the release of a final recovery plan within 30 months.

The timeframe is not binding, but had it been followed, the groups noted in their suit, FWS should have released a recovery plan in September 2002, or 12 years ago.

“We are pleased that the court recognized how important these plans are to prevent the extinction of the lynx,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “Finally, FWS can get down to identifying and reducing threats to the cats’ long-term survival.”

Edgar couldn’t elaborate on the ruling, but in recent years FWS has said its recovery plan was contingent upon publication of the final rule for critical lynx habitat.

Yet work on critical habitat has been dogged by litigation, the agency has argued. It also claims the lynx is a low-priority species, given its high potential for recovery and low degree of threat.

“The idea with the suit was to get a firm commitment or deadline by which FWS has to complete its plan,” Bishop said. “That’s the ultimate goal here – to get the lynx delisted.”

The suit included Friends of the Wild Swan in Montana and Rocky Mountain Wild, based in Colorado. The San Juan Citizens Alliance in California and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Wyoming also joined the suit.

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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