Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Canada lynx that live in the mountains around the Methow Valley would be removed from the Endangered Species List based on a recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

State officials say species requires more ‘recovery action’

By Ann McCreary

The mountains around the Methow Valley are home to the Pacific Northwest’s largest remaining population of Canada lynx, a threatened species that federal wildlife officials recommend removing from special protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week announced its intention to begin a process that would remove federal protections for the Canada lynx, which has been listed as a threatened species since 2000 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The recommendation to remove Canada lynx followed a review that concluded the species no longer needs special protection.

That contradicts conclusions by Washington state wildlife officials, who last year changed the status of Canada lynx from threatened to endangered. The decision by the federal wildlife agency to remove the Canada lynx from the list of threatened species came as a surprise to Washington wildlife officials.

“It’s a bit unexpected, because of how we see the population. We’re seeing the need for aggressive recovery action. We’re not seeing that they have recovered,” said Jeff Lewis, a biologist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Lewis led a status review of lynx in Washington that concluded the species needs additional protections primarily due to loss of habitat in the past 20 years, largely due to wildfires, and the expectation that lynx habitat will continue to be threatened as a result of continued wildfires and the direct and indirect effects of climate change.

Canada lynx in the Northwest are found almost exclusively in the western half of Okanogan County, in the North Cascades mountains around the Methow Valley, as well as some parts of Chelan, Whatcom and Skagit counties.

“Lynx live in a boreal forest environment — cold northern forests that have deep, soft fluffy snow,” said Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the WDFW. “Areas that support that kind of habitat are shrinking.” That environment is also home to snowshoe hares, the primary food of lynx.

In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which contains most of the lynx habitat in Washington, “we’ve lost about half of what we could consider lynx habitat … in the last 20 years,” Fitkin said.

Wildfires like last year’s Diamond Creek Fire and the 2006 Tripod Fire consumed huge swaths of forest in the Pasayten Wilderness, which was critical habitat for the lynx, said John Rohrer, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service “It will be 25 years before forest succession will provide a dense cover for lynx,” he said.

Climate scientists say climate change, in addition to contributing to larger and more frequent wildfires, is also likely to reduce mountain snowpack, further constricting and fragmenting lynx habitat. 

Ignored findings

In announcing its conclusion that the lynx no longer needs protection, FWS cited a recently completed “Species Status Assessment” that evaluated “snowshoe hare population dynamics, climate change, forest ecology and other issues.” The agency concluded that climate change is “an important factor” in lynx conservation, but that lynx are not “at risk of extinction from climate change within the foreseeable future.”

The agency also cited “lack of regulatory mechanisms on federal public lands” as a reason for the listing of Canada lynx as threatened in 2000, and said that since the lynx was listed, federal land managers throughout the lynx’s range “have formally amended their management plans and implemented conservation measure to conserve species.” The agency did not indicate whether those conservation measures would be expected to continue if the lynx were removed from federal protections.

Conservation groups criticized FWS for ignoring scientific findings of the lynx status review, and for attempting to circumvent a 2014 court order that required the agency to complete a recovery plan for Canada lynx this month.

“A draft of the review issued about a year ago seemed to reflect the state of the knowledge, very much like Washington state’s status review completed last year,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest, based in Bellingham.

That draft review indicated that the lynx range “had contracted so the areas they occurred in were becoming more restricted … and that climate change continued to be a threat looming over future prospects for the lynx,” Werntz said. “The draft was going in the opposite direction” from the agency’s recent decision to remove the lynx from protection, he said.

Werntz, who lives in Winthrop, said the review on which FWS based its decision to delist the lynx identified six lynx populations in the lower 48 states, and found that five of those populations, including Okanogan County’s population, “have less than 50 percent chance of persisting for a century.”

“The Trump Administration’s decision that lynx no longer deserve federal protection is shameful, cavalier and contrary to best available information. It’s clear that lynx are facing extinction threats and warrant federal wildlife protections,” Werntz said.

Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said FWS has chosen to remove federal protections rather than complete a recovery plan for Canada lynx.

In 2014 a federal court in Montana ruled that FWS violated the ESA by failing to prepare a recovery plan for lynx after a delay of more than 12 years. The court ordered the agency to complete a recovery plan by Jan. 15, 2018 — last Monday.

“The Trump administration doesn’t even know how many of these animals are left, so it’s ridiculous to strip away these protections,” said Santarsiere. “Wildlife officials should draft a recovery plan and collect crucial population data instead of leading the species down a path to extinction.”

Lost habitat

The population of lynx in Washington isn’t known, said Lewis, a mesocarnivore (midsize carnivore) specialist for WDFW.  “It seems safe to say it’s not more than 100. I don’t know that it’s more than 50. We don’t know if lynx are recovering. We don’t know if the population is reproducing sufficiently to sustain itself.”

Loss and fragmentation of habitat is a clear threat to the future of the species in Okanogan County, he said. “Habitat is not only being threatened by but is being lost at a rate that it can’t replace itself, because of the fires. No one knows what’s going to happen next year or the year after. Will it [wildfire occurrence] slow down to a rate that it can restore itself, or will it always be at a deficit?

“In the absence of certainty we want to be protective,” Lewis said. “We have one area with a finite habitat that is being threatened over and over again.”

With state officials concluding last year that more work is needed to protect lynx, the federal agency’s decision to eliminate protections “makes our job harder,” Lewis said.

“We don’t want our assessment to be different from Fish and Wildlife’s assessment because we need to be on the same team. It takes a lot to protect a species. If you don’t have everybody working together, it’s less likely to succeed. It’s always been important to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Lewis said.

There are species in Washington that are protected under state law, but not federal law.  Fishers, for example (another mid-size carnivore), are listed as endangered by the state but are not protected under federal law, he said.

Lack of federal protections for lynx may impact funding for initiatives to protect the animal and its habitat, Lewis said. “We have a lynx conservation strategy team with priority actions to put on the ground to help lynx and protect lynx habitat. We’re moving ahead as best we can but are limited by the funding we can get. We often depend on federal funding to do that. If they’re delisted, I can imagine federal funds to support lynx recovery would be reduced.”

The lynx population in the North Cascades is probably one of the smallest in the country, Lewis said. In addition to Washington, Canada lynx are also found in Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Maine and Colorado.

The recommendation by FWS announced last week does not immediately impact the ESA protections currently in place for Canada lynx, FWS said. The agency must follow a process that begins with publishing a proposed rule in the Federal Register, taking public comments, reviewing and analyzing comments, conducting a peer review, and announcing a final decision.

“If they are to put forward a decision that is not based on scientific fact, that would make them vulnerable to legal action,” Werntz said.