- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

DENVER | Thirty-nine thousand square miles sounds like a lot of habitat for the Canadian lynx, if you’re a snowmobiler. But not if you’re an environmentalist.

So both groups are going after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of that amount of land, mostly in the northern Rockies, as habitat for the tuft-eared cat. The agency will have to wage a two-front legal battle, against environmental groups saying it’s not enough land and against recreation groups saying it’s too much.

The Washington and Wyoming state snowmobile associations filed a lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne challenging the agency’s decision to designate parts of six states as critical lynx habitat.

“They’re talking about almost 40,000 square miles. That’s Indiana we’re talking about,” said Matt Mead, spokesman for the Washington State Snowmobile Association.

A coalition of environmental groups insists the lynx needs more, and plans to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks to expand the habitat into Colorado and the southern Rocky Mountains, said Geoff Hickcox, staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center.

Mr. Hickcox said his organization is grateful for the agency’s generous designation, but that it’s important to create a corridor from the northern Rockies to Colorado, where the state Division of Wildlife is running a lynx reintroduction program.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s designated habitat would include portions of Washington, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as sections of Maine and Minnesota. Stretching the Rocky Mountain habitat southward into Colorado would benefit the lynx by connecting its population centers, he said.

“There’s important habitat in Colorado and the southern Rockies, and despite the size of the designation, it was still an oversight to leave out this habitat,” Mr. Hickcox said.

The agency revised its previous habitat designation for the Canadian lynx in February. Before that, habitat for the lynx, which was listed as threatened in 2000, was 1,841 square miles in three national parks, in Minnesota, Montana and Washington.

Recreationists say the steep increase in designated habitat represents a major federal action that should require an environmental-impact study, including an evaluation of the impact on motorized recreation sports and the communities that depend on related tourism.

“The federal government has laws it’s supposed to follow, and when they do these things, they’re supposed to look beyond the animal itself - look at the impact on recreation, communities, the big picture,” said Mr. Mead, whose group represents 35,000 registered snowmobile owners in Washington.

“I’m certainly not for running the lynx into extinction, but I am in favor of finding a balance,” he said. “I believe we coexist very well.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has insisted the designation won’t result in curbs on recreational or economic activity, pointing to the fact that the smaller existing lynx habitat has no such restrictions.

“We do not expect the listing of critical habitat to have any impact on snowmobiling beyond the regulations that have been in place since 2000,” Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger said.

As for expanding the habitat, Ms. Katzenberger said that the wildlife service did not include Colorado in its designation because the species has yet to develop a self-sustaining population in the state.

Despite the reassurances, snowmobilers are leery. Environmental groups have long fought to limit or remove snowmobiles in national parks, citing the impact of air and noise pollution on wildlife and visitors.

Last year, a federal judge effectively banned snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park by rejecting the National Park Service’s winter-use plan. The court ultimately approved a management plan that allowed the snowmobile season to proceed.

“Right now, they’re not saying we can’t ride,” Mr. Mead said. “Right now, it doesn’t sound so bad, but we’re afraid of what’s going to happen next.”

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