An Idaho court ruling showed that the state of Montana did the right thing when it agreed to protect threatened Canada lynx from accidental trapping.
In a Jan. 8 ruling, Idaho federal District Judge Lynn Winmill agreed with environmental groups that Idaho’s trapping regulations were insufficient to protect lynx from being trapped accidentally in the Clearwater and Panhandle regions of the state. The judge ordered the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to spend the next 90 days working with the plaintiffs on trapping limits to prevent what the Endangered Species Act calls “incidental take” of lynx. In the meantime, trapping is suspended in those areas of Idaho.
However, Winmill refused to extend the ruling to other parts of Idaho, mainly because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified only the northern part of Idaho as the cat’s critical habitat.
The USFWS listed the lynx as threatened in 2000. Population sizes in the U.S. are uncertain but assumed to be small because the shy cats live in somewhat isolated regions that are becoming more fragmented, and their population levels tend to follow that of their main prey, the snowshoe hare.
Since 2000, Montana trappers have reported capturing 15 lynx while trying to lure bobcats, wolves or other animals. Between January 2012 and February 2014, Idaho trappers reported catching four lynx. Three were released, but the ESA considers either the harassment or the death of animals as “take.” The USFWS estimates for every reported lynx trapping, one isn’t reported, so the actual number of captured lynx is probably higher.
“This is a victory not just for lynx but for bobcats, wolves, fishers, coyotes, foxes, and a suite of other forest animals as well,” said Ken Cole, Idaho director for Western Watersheds Project in a release. “Hopefully, the Idaho Fish and Game Department will take the hint that their regulations are completely inadequate for the protection of endangered species, and the agency will make changes that will benefit many other species that are indiscriminately trapped.”
Knowing that people trap animals in lynx territory, the USFWS came out with guidelines to prevent incidental take, including using foothold traps that are too small for lynx paws but would catch smaller furbearing animals.
But unlike Montana, Idaho refused to pass such requirements, so the 2014 lawsuit went all the way to a court hearing.
“Today’s decision makes crystal clear that the state of Idaho must take responsibility for its failure to adequate regulate cruel trapping to protect imperiled lynx,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We call on the state to immediately implement scientifically sound, humane restrictions on trapping, including 24-hour trap checks.”
The plaintiffs - including the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Clearwater, and WildEarth Guardians – sued Montana in 2013, one year before the Idaho lawsuit.
But Montana chose to settle, and last summer, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners approved new trapping regulations to protect the lynx in two regions: an area that encompasses the Gallatin, Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges north of Yellowstone National Park, and another in northwestern Montana extending from the Canada border through Glacier National Park to U.S. Highway 12 east of Helena.
Trappers in those areas must use smaller traps and snares and check their traps every 48 hours instead of every 72. Montana already has some additional limits for wolf trapping that help keep lynx from being caught.
Missoula U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen approved the settlement in September.
“The (Idaho) decision reaffirms that Montana did the right thing by sitting down and addressing the issue. Idaho refused to take any responsibility and now has wasted all these resources by going to court with basically the same result,” Cotton told MOTG.
Montana trappers who had intervened when the lawsuit was filed in Montana opposed the settlement, claiming the 48-hour trap check was too difficult. Christensen disagreed, so the trappers have appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.