One of my biggest regrets is passing up an opportunity to see a Canada lynx in the wild. A wildlife biologist—and my future husband—invited me to watch the release of a lynx relocated from Canada into Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado to help reestablish a population in the Southern Rockies. I was a busy grad student 20 years ago, but apparently not very smart. I didn’t realize it might have been my only chance to see one in the wild.
Secretive and rare, this forest cat has been protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as threatened since 2000. Though Colorado successfully restored lynx, the Southern Rockies population is small and vulnerable. Moreover, the U.S. Forest Service just weakened protections for the species on the Rio Grande National Forest—the most important forest in the Southern Rockies for lynx.
Unfortunately, the Canada lynx is one case of many where the Forest Service is not meeting its legal and moral obligations to promote the recovery of threatened and endangered species on our national forests and grasslands. And it’s happening on the verge of a 6th mass extinction, driven by humans—with 68% of populations disappearing since 1970 , according to the recently released Living Planet report . This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis, and the federal land management agencies, including the Forest Service, have an essential role in stemming the tide of biodiversity loss.
The Forest Service and Wildlife Conservation
The ESA includes a provision requiring federal agencies to develop programs that advance species recovery, and the Forest Service’s own regulations mandate the development of management plans that “contribute to the recovery” of federally listed species. Plus, conserving our wildlife heritage for the sake of these species and for future generations of people is the right thing to do, and the majority of Americans overwhelmingly support wildlife conservation.
National Forests and grasslands are not like national parks or national wildlife refuges, which prioritize wildlife protection. The Forest Service’s mission entails promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, and this “multiple use mandate” allows for logging, oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, mining, motorized and non-motorized recreation and other activities. Wildlife conservation is considered a “use” of these public lands and meant to be equal to other uses. However, balancing uses comes with a built-in tension because these human activities also disturb, degrade and destroy habitat.
The Canada Lynx
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed Canada lynx residing in the lower 48 states as threatened under the ESA. Four of the six separate populations exist in the western U.S. and significantly depend on national forests in Washington and the northern and southern Rocky Mountains. After the lynx received ESA protections, the national forests in the Rockies adopted amendments to their land management plans to better protect the species’ habitat from threats such as logging, disturbance from recreation and livestock grazing.
In the Rocky Mountains, lynx prefer living in high elevation spruce-fir forests where they can find deep, fluffy snow that gives them and their huge snowshoe paws a competitive edge over other predators such as mountain lions and bobcats whose feet sink into deep snow. This need for snow also makes lynx particularly vulnerable to climate change, because snow is melting earlier in the spring and less precipitation is falling as snow.
When Forest Uses Conflict
The timber industry wants to log areas in lynx habitat. The Forest Service must offer timber harvesting opportunities. However, the cats tend to avoid logged areas as do their preferred prey, snowshoe hares. Logging can fragment habitat, making it more difficult for breeding adult lynx to find mates and for younger lynx to disperse and establish their own territories. The Rocky Mountains provide strongholds for lynx—for now. In 2017, FWS predicted each of the six Lower 48 populations would likely decline throughout the century and three of these populations might be extinct by the end of it.
The Southern Rockies reintroduced population is among those on the path toward potential extinction unless we can get a grip on the threats. Yet, the Forest Service is not stepping up for the species, and this is exemplified by recent policy changes made by the Rio Grande National Forest.
Lynx on the Rio Grande National Forest
About 85% of the reintroduced lynx were released in the Rio Grande National Forest - before then, lynx were believed to be essentially extinct in Colorado since 1974.
In May, the Rio Grande approved a new management plan. The Forest Service had a perfect chance to strengthen protections for the species, but the agency took a hard pass, weakening plan provisions and allowing nearly unlimited logging on about 40% of the forest that previously had strict safeguards. On top of this, the forest has suffered from a recent spruce bark beetle outbreak that killed massive numbers of spruce trees and nearly eliminated what biologists considered the best habitat for lynx. The Forest Service also rejected the opportunity to protect lynx core habitat and movement corridors with land designations, such as recommended wilderness and special management areas, that would have restricted logging, roadbuilding and oil and gas extraction.
Given the failure of the Rio Grande National Forest’s management plan to provide necessary protections for lynx habitat to advance the species’ recovery, Defenders of Wildlife has filed a notice of intent to sue the Forest Service. We urged the Rio Grande leadership throughout its plan revision process to provide lynx habitat conservation measures. The Forest Service gave us little choice but to plan for a lawsuit.
The Forest Service requires a complete transformation to meet its mandate to advance recovery of threatened and endangered species protected under the ESA. Above all, the Forest Service is in desperate need of funding for the work and could use a few more champions in Congress to help boost its recovery budget. Yet, the agency often preferences the interests of user groups over wildlife, and there is little incentive for employees to engage in recovery projects, such as habitat restoration . If the Forest Service takes the steps needed to make imperiled species recovery a priority, the agency could stand out as a model institution for tackling the biodiversity crisis.