Montana federal court judge orders US Fish & Wildlife Service to complete protection plan for threatened lynx within 30 days; planning requires designation of critical habitat, which the agency claims has been difficult to identify

Alberta , May 20, 2014 () – YELLOWSTONE TO YUKON has issued the following news release:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not have acted swiftly to protect endangered lynx, but a Montana federal court judge did.

On Thursday in Missoula, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with four environmental groups that claimed the USFWS has delayed the publication of a lynx recovery plan for too long.

Molloy ordered the USFWS to propose a schedule within 30 days for the completion of a lynx plan.

"The history of this case causes a certain skepticism about the agency's self-declared deadlines for initiating recovery planning. Consequently, the service will be bound by a deadline for recovery planning unless it finds and documents that such a plan will not promote the conservation of the lynx," Molloy said in his ruling.

Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Bishop sued for the plaintiffs in March 2013, and both sides filed their final arguments just a month ago.

"This decision came fast. I was hoping to get a decision by fall," Bishop said.

Friends of the Wild Swan in Swan Lake joined with Wyoming-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Wild and San Juan Citizens Alliance to start the lawsuit.

The USFWS listed the lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000 but has yet to craft a plan to help lynx populations recover.

The USFWS's own regulations include a timeline that suggests that final recovery plans be completed within 30 months of a species' listing.

Molloy had to determine whether missing that 30-month deadline by 12 years qualified as "unreasonably delayed."

Even though the ESA sets no deadlines for actions, other judges have ruled that if agencies cause unreasonable delays, it "frustrates congressional intent by forcing a breakdown of the regulatory process."

Other court decisions, such as Nader v. the Federal Communications Commission, have set nine years as a limit "for any agency to decide almost any issue."

The USFWS gave a number of reasons for why it had yet to publish a plan and had counter-sued, asking the judge to rule that the delay was not unreasonable.

The plan requires the identification of critical habitat that should be protected in order to preserve the species in question. For the lynx, the critical habitat designation has yet to be finalized, so the USFWS claimed it couldn't write the recovery plan.

Several lawsuits have required the USFWS to go back to the critical-habitat drawing board because areas proposed in 2006 were found to be insufficient. Initially, it didn't include areas of Montana.

The USFWS also complained that it had to balance the needs of the lynx against those of 20 other listed species that lack recovery plans. The lynx is a lower priority because the USFWS considers the threat to be low and the potential for recovery to be high.

Finally, the USFWS said it didn't have the funds or the staffing to write the recovery plan at the same time that it's working on the critical habitat designation.

Molloy didn't consider any of those arguments to be valid, saying that ever-arising impediments should not stop a creation of a plan.

"The service has repeatedly stated that it will initiate recovery planning for the lynx," Molloy wrote. "The service cannot delay its statutory obligation indefinitely."

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