BILLINGS, Montana (AP) — Wildlife advocates want a federal judge to order faster action on a recovery plan for imperiled Canada lynx, after wildlife officials said it could take until 2018 to finish the long-delayed work.
The U.S. government declared the snow-loving big cats a threatened species across the Lower 48 states in 2000. But officials haven't come up with a mandated recovery plan, citing budget limitations and competing concerns from other troubled species.
After a federal judge in Montana criticized the long delay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered to complete the work by early 2018.
A coalition of wildlife advocacy groups says that's not soon enough. They're asking U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy to order the work done by late 2016.
Lynx dwell in the forest, where they're rarely seen, and there's no reliable estimate of their population. They range across parts of 14 states in the Northeast, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes and the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon.
Lynx are about the size of a bobcat, with large paws that help the predator stay on top of the deep snow typical through its range. Those paws also make it easier to capture its primary prey, snowshoe hares.
Threats to its survival vary across its range and include timber harvesting, development and other factors.
The government has designated large areas in the West as critical habitat for lynx in recent years. A pending proposal would expand that designation to about 28,000 square miles (72,520 sq. kilometers) of public land, primarily in northern Montana and the region surrounding Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.
But an attorney for the wildlife advocates said the designations amount to a "paper exercise" in the absence of a recovery plan's detailed road map for protecting lynx.
"I haven't seen any statement from any agency that lynx are improving," said attorney Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center. "If anything we're seeing a lot of industrial logging projects even in lynx critical habitat."
Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Regional Director Michael Thabault said Tuesday that the government's recovery plan schedule was reasonable. He cited limited agency resources and the complexity of addressing a species with such a broad range.
Officials also say that lynx face a relatively low degree of threat compared to other protected species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to come up with a timeline on the recovery document when Molloy last month expressed frustration with the government's progress. The judge said the "stutter-step" approach by federal officials necessitated court intervention.
The lawsuit pending before Molloy was brought by Friends of the Wild Swan, Rocky Mountain Wild, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. They have argued that the government should be pushing ahead on the habitat and recovery issues simultaneously to keep the lynx from edging closer to extinction.