Plan to protect Canada lynx faces skepticism

James Hagengruber - Staff writer


Coeur d'Alene, Idaho - A federal plan to protect North Idaho's remaining Canada lynx aroused criticism from environmentalists and motorized sports enthusiasts at a meeting hosted by the Forest Service on Tuesday night in Coeur d'Alene.

The agency is under court order to protect what's left of the elusive cat's habitat. A proposal announced in January aims to preserve the thick, high-elevation conifer forests preferred by lynx and their prey, the snowshoe hare.

Forest thinning projects would be banned in certain cases, as would expansion of the region's network of groomed snowmobile trails.

About 30 people were at the information session. The Forest Service will use public comments when it drafts a final version of the lynx amendment this year. The rule will direct lynx management on 18 million acres of federal land in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Utah.

Washington's lynx, including a population in the Okanogan Highlands believed to be one of the healthiest in the Lower 48, are not covered by the plan. Lynx habitat conservation measures are being included in individual forest plan revisions under way for the Okanogan, Colville and Wenatchee national forests.

Some snowmobilers attending the meeting wondered why so much fuss was being made over so few animals. Early trapping records indicate lynx were once abundant in the area. In the past four years, there have been only four verified sightings, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I don't think we should be creating an area to protect something that's not there," said Bill White of Coeur d'Alene. "Why don't we create an area for sasquatch?"

Others said the small number of remaining lynx is precisely why more needs to be done. The Forest Service proposal does not address recovery of lynx. It focuses on preserving the remaining habitat on which the animals rely.

"Unless you address recovery, the lynx are doomed," said Phil Hough, of Sagle.

Fueling skepticism on both sides is a lack of scientific research. Lynx have not revealed their secrets easily.

Scientists remain puzzled about why there are so few lynx in North Idaho, despite the region's healthy population of snowshoe hares. Studies are also under way to determine the impact of packed snowmobile trails on lynx.

The cats have snowshoe-like feet that allow them to chase hares through deep snow. Groomed snowmobile trails are thought to give other predators, including coyotes, an advantage.

Joan Dickerson, a Forest Service representative from Missoula, said the agency is simply trying to use the best information available to keep the animal from going extinct. The plan can be modified as more information is available.

"We need to assure ourselves that lynx are going to survive into the future," said Dickerson, who helped write the proposal.

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to preserve the habitat of plants and animals at risk of extinction.

The plan aims to protect stands of young, thick forest, but projects that thin forests to reduce the risk of wildfire will not be halted, Dickerson said. Many of the areas targeted by the wildfire work are not in lynx habitat.

"You can burn it, you can log it, you can thin it," she told the gathering.

The proposal prohibits the expansion of groomed snowmobile trails, but North Idaho forests would not likely feel the pinch, Dickerson said. The Idaho Panhandle National Forests have about 975 miles of designated snowmobile trail that crosses lynx habitat. About half of those miles are not groomed.

The proposal would allow the existing trails to be groomed.

Off-trail riding also would be allowed, Dickerson said. There is no evidence that backcountry snowmobiles harm lynx.

"It doesn't close anything," she said.

Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, shook his head.

"That's kind of unsettling," he said. "It sounds to me you are encouraging a go-anywhere-you-want kind of thing."

Rosenberg said the plan lacked teeth and seemed to offer the lynx little hope of a rebound in North Idaho.

Dickerson said the Forest Service plan needed to be conservative until more information is gathered. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to develop a recovery plan for lynx, as directed by a federal judge.

The Forest Service is accepting comments in the lynx plan until April 15.



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