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For the week of Dec. 22, 1999 through Dec. 28, 1999

Reclusive and threatened lynx may gain federal protection

Activities in lynx habitat in central and northern Idaho would be curbed

Express Staff Writer

One of nature’s most introverted creatures could soon generate extroverted behavior from the Northwest’s recreation and logging communities. Both activities could be more strictly managed if a certain North American wildcat is placed on the endangered species list.

The lynx—a reclusive, long-legged, gargantuan-pawed cat that regularly preys on snowshoe hare—may be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species on Jan. 8. If it’s not formally listed, it will probably be managed as if it were, acknowledged Sawtooth National Forest endangered species biologist Deb Bumpus.

"Whether it’s listed or not, how it will be managed is pretty much set," Bumpus said in an interview at her office last week.

Under direction from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency responsible for ESA listings—government and private scientists drafted a conservation plan for the lynx that was released to land and wildlife managers this month.

The plan calls for backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, logging and road and trail building to be curbed in areas believed to be lynx habitat. That includes areas in most of central and northern Idaho, including the Sawtooth National Forest and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Washington, Montana and portions of Maine are also home to lynx. The cats abound in Canada and Alaska, though ESA listing would only affect management of the species in the U.S.

The ESA protects animals and plant species in danger of extinction and those that may become endangered in the foreseeable future. The act requires agencies to ensure that activities do not harm the continued existence of the listed species.

Bumpus said the Sawtooth National Forest is still waiting for the wildlife service’s final decision on listing before releasing determinations on how winter recreation management would be revised locally.

Implementation of such strategies would not go into effect until at least six months after a declaration is made. The Sawtooth National Forest has a very modest logging program and wouldn’t be considerably affected on that front.

Both winter backcountry travel and logging are marked because of the effects they have on snowshoe hare numbers. Historically, lynx populations—monitored by trapping records—have mirrored those of snowshoe hare, which are currently low.

Snowshoe hare populations typically peak and decline in 10- to 11-year cycles, and the animals last peaked around 1988, Bumpus said, meaning that the existing low numbers reflect this cycle.

The problems with backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, Bumpus explained, are that they pack snow, allowing animals such as coyotes and foxes to enter lynx habitat to compete for the same rabbit-based prey base.

"A coyote can out-compete a lynx, and coyotes normally don’t travel. They stay in the valleys," Bumpus said.

Lynx usually hide out in high-mountain, wooded areas. Their large, snowshoe-like feet enable them to walk on the snow, rather than through it, a distinct advantage over the cats’ competitors.

"With these magnificent paws, the lynx floats on snow that has wolves and foxes floundering up to their chests," wrote Jerry Kobalenko in his book, Forest Cats of North America. "Its feet are almost as big as a wolf’s, yet this fine-boned cat weighs only one-quarter as much."

Logging operations could be affected because limitations would be posed on cutting forests that are five to 50 years old, the snowshoe hare’s optimum habitat. Logging operations typically thin young forests to facilitate a faster turnaround of mature trees, a process called pre-commercial cutting.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ray Vizgirdas said logging determinations would probably be made on a case-by-case basis, however.

Despite efforts to protect the elusive lynx, very little is known about its health as a species in the United States. Bumpus said she is aware of the conflicts ESA listing could spark in light of the lack of scientific knowledge and the recreational and economic impacts it could have.

"This is one of the most difficult listings I’ve been involved in," she said. "There’s never been so much shoulder shrugging and ‘I don’t knows’ than with this species. No body’s got any information on them. The (conservation plan) is probably better than a listing at this point."

Jim Beers, federal programs coordinator for the National Trappers Association, Inc. and a former wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he strongly opposes lynx listing.

In a telephone conversation last week, he charged that the wildlife service stands to gain more federal grant money, personnel and a larger allocated budget if another species is listed.

Vizgirdas said, however, that the agency’s budget is not generally increased when new species are listed.

"It usually puts us in more of a bind," he said.

Beers, who said that he’s opposed to the ESA in general, declared:

"This attitude of listing species without a thorough scientific review and against the wishes of the state fish and game agencies is indicative of why there is so much opposition to the Endangered Species Act.

"Lynx in the lower 48 are not remnants of former abundance but rather cyclic animals that have never been very abundant in the contiguous U.S."

Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Mike Todd said he is also concerned about the implications a lynx listing could have.

"Being listed as threatened or endangered changes the complexion of things a whole lot. It’s no longer business as usual, is what I’m trying to say here," he said. "This is something that is going to have some significant impacts."

Though the number of lynx in Idaho is not accurately known, Forest Cats author Kobalenko points out that the future for all of North America’s wildcats is quite uncertain.

"These days, most of us wish them well, and that’s been a real awakening…But even as the sounds of gunfire and the snap of leg-hold traps become fainter, the roar of the bulldozers grows louder. For top predators like cats, it may signal the final battle.

"You can legislate hunting and trapping with the stroke of a pen, but there’s no easy answer to loss of wilderness."


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