Buzzkill: We probably already do have Canada lynx in New Mexico. But a recent Montana District Court decision could mean land managers will need to make more concessions to see them thrive here.
The Canada lynx weighs in at just 14 to 31 pounds, with grizzled gray hair, ears tipped in black fur. Their large paws are ideal for traveling in the deep, powdery snow they and their favorite prey, snowshoe hares, rely on. They make their homes in forests in mosaic stages of growth—dense clusters of young trees and mature multistory stands.
When Colorado Parks and Wildlife began releasing lynx into the San Juan Mountains to re-establish the species in 1999—one year before the lynx was officially listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act—their radio tracking collars showed them immediately dispersing beyond state boundaries. They went where habitat and prey led, and at least 28 wore telemetry collars that said those conditions led them to New Mexico.
"You wouldn't use an artificial state boundary to cut off habitat," says Matt Bishop, with the Western Environmental Law Center. "The San Juans are a good example—the state line goes right through them, and snowshoe hares are on either side of the state line."
Colorado wildlife managers estimate 81 lynx have passed through Northern New Mexico, though none are known to have reproduced here. Fourteen have been killed here. Monitoring of lynx telemetry collars ended in 2010, leaving their current locations unknown, but likely more than 100 lynx now live in the southern Rockies.
So it came as something of a surprise when the US Fish and Wildlife Service mapped out critical habitat for Canada lynx and excluded the southern Rockies, arguing that they lacked sufficient prey to sustain a long-term population. That the agency failed to acknowledge the successful lynx reproduction program in Colorado "runs counter to the evidence before the agency," conservation groups argued when they took the decision to court.
A Montana District Court judge recently sided with those groups, calling on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess their designated habitat for the lynx. Given the agency's tacit acknowledgment that all other elements for lynx exist in the area, and a "close call" on whether the snowshoe hare population was sufficient, Chief District Judge Dana Christensen wrote, "the [Endangered Species Act] demands that the tie go to the species."
The 17-year-old program in Colorado demonstrates lynx are likely to find suitable conditions there, he added. To exclude the area from designated habitat, he wrote, ignores the "best available science," which the Endangered Species Act mandates be used to manage these species. All the judge can say is to go back and take another look at the critical habitat; whether the southern Rockies see designation will still be up to the federal agency. The Fish and Wildlife Service has asked the court to "clarify" the recent ruling.
"The thing about the Endangered Species Act is it doesn't just say you designate currently occupied habitat, it actually has an entire provision to designate habitat that is not currently occupied but is important to the survival and recovery of the species," says Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "It's really the institutionalization of the precautionary principle. So if you realize there are islands of this species and they need this particular habitat type, and that habitat exists in some of these places, we should make sure it continues to exist."
Canada lynx are protected in New Mexico, making shooting or trapping one a crime. But without critical habitat designation, land managers and developers don't have to make as many concessions to preserve their habitat.
Conservationists are also going at the issue by lobbying another federal agency: the US Forest Service.
With the Santa Fe National Forest's revisions to its forest plan, the document guiding management for decades, underway, some of these same groups are saying now is the time to add managing for Canada lynx to that agency's to-do list.
"Lynx will be stressed by climate change, and ensuring that other anthropogenic threats do not unnecessarily stress lynx even further is essential if lynx recovery is to occur," Amigos Bravos and the Western Environmental Law Center wrote in their comments on the Santa Fe National Forest's forest plan revision. "For this reason, we request the Santa Fe [National Forest] use the revised forest planning effort as a springboard for lynx conservation in the southern Rockies."
That could affect logging, development, hunting, trapping and managing for wildfires, as well as other activities that could impair the species' preferred habitat of mature, multi-storied forests and food sources.
The Forest Service maintains that there is no designated critical habitat for lynx in New Mexico—true, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service's last plan for the species, but that's exactly what the court asked the agency to reconsider. These things move slowly, of course, and finalizing new critical habitat could take two years.
The top-tier threat faced by the lynx, according to the Interagency Lynx Biology Team, is climate change. For a species that relies on persistent and dense snow, predictions that coming decades will see a 40 percent decline in persistent snow make the future look grim.
The Center for Biological Diversity's comments about the proposed lynx critical habitat point out that the southern Rockies average higher elevations than other proposed areas.
"It's not to say that New Mexico's environment will always be ideal," says Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, "but anywhere a threatened animal can find habitat even for just a few decades can make a real difference in the long run."
What affect lynx will have on the rest of the ecosystem here remains to be seen.
"The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts," Cotton says. "Let's make sure we keep all the pieces, because we fundamentally don't understand how they all fit together."