The feds will have to consider making Colorado forests a refuge for the lynx

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

You’ve probably never seen a lynx, but there’s a steadily growing number of them in Colorado. Since 1997, the government has worked to bring the fluffy mountain wildcats back to Southern Colorado.

That strategy has been working. Colorado Parks and Wildlife released 218 lynx into the state’s wild areas, and they’re surviving. Now, a new development could make the state even friendlier for the rare feline.

I'm a Canada lynx, baby. (Keith Williams/Flickr)

I'm a Canada lynx. (Keith Williams/Flickr)

The short version: Currently, the federal government does not set aside any part of Colorado as a protected habitat for the lynx. Environmentalists sued, and a judge ordered the government to rethink this whole thing.

That opens the distinct possibility that parts of Colorado will be designated as “critical habitat” for lynx.

The background:

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Canada lynx to be a threatened species in fourteen states.

Lynx like to live in dense forests with “deep fluffy snow” and lots of snowshoe hares to eat. And as part of its “threatened” status, the feds generally have to set aside some protected areas for the animal.

That didn’t happen very fast, at least until environmentalists sued, but eventually the government set aside “critical habitats” for lynx in six states.

A critical habitat is an area where the government has to be extra careful to protect a species. It does not forbid development. Colorado was not part of this area.

Another lawsuit in 2009 forced the feds to reconsider where that habitat should be. A court found the government hadn’t thought deeply enough about how and where lynx make babies, so the government revised the map in 2014. Still no Colorado.

Watch me work. I'm a lynx. (Keith Williams/Flickr)

Watch me work. I'm a lynx. (Keith Williams/Flickr)

Surprise: Another lawsuit quickly followed.

Plaintiffs including WildEarth Guardians wanted the Southern Rockies included, plus parts of Washington, Montana and Idaho.

So, now we’re at this week. The judge in the case, Dana Christensen, just issued a ruling that found the government had failed to explain why Southern Colorado shouldn’t be a habitat despite the apparent presence of decent lynx lodging there.

The feds had argued that a lack of hares made Colorado not-so-great, but the judge didn’t buy that. After all, the lynx that have been introduced to Colorado appear to be reproducing.

The federal government’s own arguments suggested that “parts of Colorado constitute suitable critical habitat, appropriate for designation,” the judge wrote.

Meow, baby. I'm a Canada lynx. (Eric Kilby/Flickr)

Meow, baby. I'm a Canada lynx. (Eric Kilby/Flickr)

What now?

Now the whole question of the habitats gets booted back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency will have to reconsider whether Colorado should have some protected lynx habitat.

They’ll likely have to either refute the judge’s concerns or designate habitat in Colorado.