Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Feds’ proposed expansion of lynx habitat includes several Minnesota counties

A new Fish and Wildlife Service plan for the management of land roamed by the Canada lynx would broaden protections for the big cat.

Canada lynx
Canada lynx

Soon some immigrants will find life easier in Minnesota and the rest of the United States: A proposed change in the management of land roamed by the Canada lynx would broaden protections for the big cat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised its critical habitat designation for the lynx, which has been the subject of controversy and court actions in the last few years. The proposal preceded an announcement Tuesday by President Obama to resume full scientific reviews of projects that might harm endangered wildlife and plants.

The new lynx plan is in response to a 2007 flap in which then-fish-and-wildlife Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald was accused of pressuring wildlife officials to reduce the lynx’s critical habitat designation at the behest of industry; she later resigned.

“The revised critical habitat designation for Canada lynx is the result of the Service’s review of certain Endangered Species Act actions that were alleged to have been inappropriately influenced by a former Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary,” a FWS statement said.

National range would expand to 42,754 square miles
Published in late February in the Federal Register, (PDF) the plan would expand the national habitat range to more than 23 times its current size — to 42,754 square miles across the northern states, including 8,226 square miles in Cook, Lake, Koochiching and St. Louis counties. Click here for a map of the designated areas in Minnesota.

Compare that to the MacDonald-era designation, which had shrunk the protected area in Minnesota down to 317 square miles, all in Voyageurs National Park, and 1,841 square miles nationally.

The 2009 Minnesota designation, in fact, is more than double the size biologists recommended a few years ago, when they asked for 3,546 square miles.

The Canada lynx was named as a threatened species (a notch below endangered) in the continental U.S. in 2000 after conservation groups filed suit to protect it. Under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, as a threatened species, critical habitat must be designated for the animal. That listing provides another layer of bureaucratic protection in the animal’s range, although private landowners are not affected unless they receive federal funds or permits.

Much of northern Minnesota has already been managed with the lynx in mind, so officials expect little change from the habitat do-over. About 52 percent of the proposed Minnesota critical habitat is on federal lands, 19 percent on private lands, and the remaining under state, tribal or other ownership. The report said that the Minnesota area is essential because it was the only land in the Great Lakes region where evidence of lynx reproduction occurred. The government lists logging as the most threatening human activity in the cat’s habitat.

An estimated 100-300 lynx in Minnesota
Ron Moen, a biologist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, told me a while back that he estimates between 100 and 300 lynx live in Minnesota at least part of the year. The Minnesota Department of National Resources received reports of more than 400 sightings from 2000 to 2006. From 2001 to 2007, 13 lynx were accidentally trapped (five died) and reported (PDF) to the DNR.

The 2009 critical habitat includes parts of Maine, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. About 1,000 lynx live in the wild in the continental United States, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The adult cats, which weight between 18 and 23 pounds, feed primarily on snowshoe hares.

The comment period on the proposed regulations ends April 28.