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Endangered lynx soon may have more room to roam, thanks to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who concluded that large swaths of Western habitat were wrongly excluded from protection.

In particular, the court ruled that tens of thousands of acres in southwest Montana, north and central Idaho and throughout Colorado should have been considered for protection.

"The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try and recover lynx populations, so they can eventually be removed from the endangered species list," said Michael Garrity. "The previous critical habitat designation fell far short."

Garrity is executive director at the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which joined three other conservation groups in a lawsuit arguing for more lynx habitat protections.

The secretive cats, which often live in deep forest habitats, were listed as threatened in 2000 and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials immediately began collecting data to determine how much "critical habitat" to designate. Critical habitat provides an additional layer of protection for animals listed under ESA, and helps focus protections on the areas most important to those species.

Initially, the agency planned to designate 18,000 square miles as critical for lynx; but four days before that announcement was made the protected area was slashed to just 1,841 square miles.

The agency eventually admitted that change was politically influenced by a Bush administration employee at USFWS and went back to the drawing board.

The second recommendation - issued in 2009 - suggested that 39,000 square miles in Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington be designated as critical habitat.

But Garrity's group sued - along with Native Ecosystems Council, Center for Native Ecosystems and the Sierra Club - insisting that known lynx habitat had not been included.

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On Wednesday, Molloy issued a 46-page ruling from his Missoula courtroom, concluding that the agency had, in fact, arbitrarily excluded possible "critical habitat" that is currently occupied by lynx.

The agency had argued those lands were not included because there was no evidence that lynx were reproducing there, "but they didn't necessarily look," Garrity said.

Molloy agreed that while evidence of reproduction can be cause for habitat designation, absence of that same evidence is not necessarily cause for exclusion, especially if the area hasn't been surveyed for breeding animals.

"Basically, he told them to go back and take another look at it," Garrity said. Agency officials were not available for comment Thursday.

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The existing habitat designations will remain in place, Molloy ordered, until a new review can be completed.

If all the lands currently excluded were, in fact, designated, Garrity said, it would more than double the size of the critical habitat range.

"We just want them to follow the law in making these decisions," Garrity said. Similar lawsuits helped significantly expand the critical habitat designated for endangered bull trout, he said.

Garrity said the most recent lynx habitat proposal failed to provide essential corridors between populations and protected areas, including Montana lands on the Helena, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Gallatin and Bitterroot national forests.

"We will be watching," Garrity said, "to ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service do a better job in the future, and designate enough critical habitat that will allow the lynx to recover and eventually be removed from the endangered species list."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com.

 

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