New proposal for lynx habitat

March 2, 2008 6:57:23 AM PST

Only 1,841 square miles in three national parks in Minnesota, Montana and Washington were designated as critical habitat for the long-haired mountain cat in 2006. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reconsidered that decision and those involving seven other species after allegations of interference from Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary of the interior. She has resigned.

The agency's latest proposal would expand lynx critical habitat to 42,753 in those states, Idaho, Wyoming and Maine. Other federal agencies must consult with Fish and Wildlife before approving activities in critical habitat that might affect the species involved.

Federal land makes up about 58 percent of the proposed critical habitat. Thirty percent is private land and the rest has state, tribal or other ownership.

The forest-dwelling lynx weighs about 20 pounds and is heavily dependent on the snowshoe hare for its diet.

Michael Senatore, director of the biodiversity program of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it would take time to review the proposal but that it was a step in the right direction.

"What's unclear is whether this is sufficient," he said. "It looks like they have left out important areas. There's nothing in the southern Rockies. That's problematic given there are lynx there."

None of the proposed critical habitat is in Colorado, which has been reintroducing lynx since 1999.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it did not include Colorado because it is uncertain whether that population would sustain itself; state biologists found 50 lynx kittens in 2005, but only 11 in 2006 and none last year.

Joshua Pollock, conservation director for Center for Native Ecosystems, said a critical habitat designation is crucial to lynx recovery in the southern Rockies.

"Their habitat continues to get logged, cut up by development. Lynx are run over on highways, accidentally trapped and shot. We need to see critical habitat taken seriously in the southern Rockies. Today's proposal is definitely a blow to that need," Pollock said.

Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield said the lynx already is considered a "species of concern" in Colorado, and populations there are closely monitored.

Fish and Wildlife will accept public comments on the proposal until April 28. A final decision could take close to a year.