An alliance of environmental groups trying to add the southern Rocky Mountain region to the list of Canada lynx habitats has threatened legal action against the federal government if the region isn't designated a legally and biologically critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Geoff Hickcox, counsel for the Western Environmental Law Center office in Durango, sent a notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Interior Department last week. The center now has a 60-day notice period before a lawsuit can be filed.
Hickcox said he's optimistic a solution with the new presidential administration can be met before a lawsuit moves forward because President Barack Obama appears more open to hard science than his predecessor.
The FWS has defended its decision, saying that, though the areas in Southwest Colorado are historical habitats of the endangered animal, there are too few areas in Southwest Colorado and they are too spread out to warrant inclusion on the list.
The southern Rockies were left off the list of critical habitats in a February redesignation that increased the area of critical habitats from 1,841 square miles in three states to 39,000 square miles in six states. Also omitted from the final designation is land in Montana and northeastern Washington the law center also is claiming was arbitrarily excluded from the list.
The FWS was driven to review the original designations of lynx habitats, along with the habitats of other endangered animals, after the conduct of former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, who quit the department under suspicion of altering scientific findings to help offer timber executives unfair contracts.
The groups are threatening to sue under the Endangered Species Act, which mandates that the federal government identify and protect species threatened with extinction and the habitats the species need to survive. In the February review, the southern Rockies region was described by the agency as "marginal habitat" and "on the southern limit of the species' range."
This after a reintroduction effort re-established a small population of lynxes in Southwest Colorado. The Colorado Division of Wildlife reports that 218 lynxes have been released in Colorado since 1999, and 116 kittens have since been born.
Before that, it was assumed the population had died out in Colorado. The first Colorado-born lynx to give birth to its own litter of kittens did so in 2006.
One of the groups that attached its name to the notice letter is Durango-based conservation group Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Director Veronica Egan said the issue is about more than just one animal.
"This is so important because the lynx is a keystone species, they're an indicator species. That means that if they're not doing well, the whole system isn't functioning," Egan said. "Without the lynx, there's a big piece of this giant puzzle missing."