A species of snow-loving big cats found in Washington and Idaho may lose federal endangered species protection.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it will draft a rule to revoke protections for the Canada lynx. The animals have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2000.
Fish and Wildlife said the completion of a scientific review prompted the decision. The review concluded Canada lynx should “be considered for delisting due to recovery.”
The news surprised Washington biologists tasked with protecting the animals.
“I don’t know what the status is of other lynx populations because I don’t work with those,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a Washington state Fish and Wildlife mid-size carnivore conservation biologist. “But ours, we’re more worried about them than we ever have been.”
Local, regional and national conservation groups decried the move.
“Lynx populations in Washington have declined since they were identified as a threatened species in 2000,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest in an email. “A significant amount of the habitat where they remain has been lost to recent large fires. 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.”
Sarah Levy, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman based in Portland emphasized that “the result of this assessment does not actually change the status of the species.”
However, it is the first step toward delisting the animals. To delist the Canada lynx, the agency must propose a rule in the Federal Register, take public comments, review and analyze those comments and conduct a peer review – all before announcing a final decision, according to a Fish and Wildlife news release.
Benjamin Maletzke, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was consulted for the federal species status assessment. Maletzke did his master’s and Ph.D. work on the Canada lynx, although now he is the statewide wolf specialist.
Although Maletze couldn’t speak to the health of the lynx population nationally, he said in Washington the cat is not doing well. Biologists estimate there are between 20 and 100 lynx in Washington.
“Washington has a fairly finite amount of lynx habitat available,” he said.
In recent years, climate change and forest fires have put additional pressure on that habitat. The Okanogan region is “the one area where we’ve had consistent reproducing lynx populations,” Maletzke said.
The animals are on Washington state’s endangered species list, Lewis said. However, losing the federal status could make securing funding for the animals more difficult.
“We don’t want any more disadvantages than we already have in accomplishing those things,” Lewis said. “We need all the help we can get.”
Some scientists and wildlife advocates have warned that climate change could reduce lynx habitat and the availability of its primary food source: snowshoe hares. The bobcat-sized lynx generally prefer high-elevation forests of lodgepole pines, Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. The cats, which have huge paws, live in areas with winter-long snowpack.
But in the two-year species status assessment, government biologists concluded that lynx populations remain resilient and have increased versus historical levels in parts of Colorado and Maine.
In the lower 48 states, the Canada lynx are found in Maine, northeastern Minnesota, northwestern Montana, northeastern Idaho, north-central Washington and western Colorado.
Conservationists dispute the government finding. Matthew Bishop, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center based out of Helena, said the national lynx population is worse off than it was in 2000.
“I guess our position is that it’s really a political decision,” he said. “It’s not a science decision. Again, it really caught us off guard.”
It’s estimated there are about 300 lynx in northwest Montana and southeast Idaho. Bishop said if the rule moves forward, the law center will likely sue the federal government.
The final species status assessment, released Thursday, seems to contradict the findings of an earlier version of the assessment. In 2016, a draft of the assessment concluded the Canada lynx were at risk of going extinct in the lower 48 states by the end of the century.
However, the final report stepped away from that claim, stating that making predictions out to 2100 was “highly uncertain” but that Canada lynx could go extinct in some areas.
Efforts to protect lynx habitats have angered some groups. In 2016, a federal judge blocked a Montana logging project because of concerns about the project’s impact on lynx habitat.
Lynx are not the first species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have attempted to remove from the endangered and threatened species list under the Trump administration.
In late June, Yellowstone grizzlies were removed from the list of endangered and threatened species. Some conservationists have worried the Trump administration will gut the Endangered Species Act. Early in 2017, Trump told automobile industry leaders that environmental protection laws are “out of control,” Politico reported.
Regardless of what happens nationally, Lewis said state biologists will continue to do what they can to protect the remaining animals.
“It’s not what I wanted to hear,” he said. “But it’s not terribly surprising. I’m hopeful that even if it is delisted that we can still do something about it but I think it makes it more challenging.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.