To comply with a federal court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year designated critical habitat for the Canada lynx. In Maine, the only state on the East Coast that is home to the wild cats, the service identified more than 10,600 square miles of northern Maine as critical habitat. The timber companies that own most of the land are asking that their land – about 90 percent of the total – be exempted from the designation.
This would make the habitat designation meaningless, a situation the court isn’t likely to find satisfactory. In other instances when federal officials have granted exemptions, they have usually been overturned in court.
A better approach is to continue the cooperative approach already in place in Maine to meet federal regulatory and legal requirements for lynx, which were designated a threatened species in Maine in 2000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife both say the critical habitat designation is unnecessary because there are already adequate measures in place to protect lynx here.
Despite this view, a judge has ruled that the designation must be made and the wildlife service is now collecting public comment on its plan, which would label as critical habitat about 6 million acres covering much of Aroostook, Piscataquis and Somerset and a small portion of Penobscot and Franklin counties. A year ago, when the designation was first announced, major timber companies said it wasn’t a problem. A year later, they’re predicting dire consequences.
They’re right that the designation makes official another layer of bureaucratic review. That review, however, rarely takes place. Federal review only comes into play when a landowner needs a federal permit or receives federal funds for the work. Building a major bridge, for example, would require a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This review is necessary anyway because Canada lynx are already included on the endangered species list. A project’s impact on critical habitat would be added to the review.
Since 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed more than 1,100 projects in Maine under the Endangered Species Act. In only eight cases, a “formal consultation” was warranted in which federal agencies got together to discuss ways to avoid harming a species. In each of these cases, the service found that work could be done without harming the species in question, usually bald eagles, and the projects were allowed to proceed.
Plum Creek Timber Co.’s plans for resorts and homes around Moosehead Lake will likely trigger federal review because the company would need federal permits to build in or near wetlands. Such review is required under the Endangered Species Act, with or without the critical habitat designation. The state is already considering endangered species impact as part of the Land Use Regulation Commission review process.
For lynx, timber companies have already developed plans for ensuring that the cats’ habitat is not destroyed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already working with landowners to ensure these plans mesh with a recovery plan federal biologists are currently writing for the cats.
This work is more important than fighting a designation that isn’t likely to make much difference in the woods where lynx live.