Snowmobile groups want access to lynx habitat

Five conservation groups filed papers in U.S. District Court in Wyoming to defend designated critical habitat for Canada lynx being challenged by snowmobile groups.

Both the Washington and Wyoming state snowmobile associations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May, saying some of the 39,000 square miles of critical habitat in six states would restrict snowmobiling.

Canada lynx are listed as a threatened species, and in February, the federal government re-evaluated habitat needed to protect the animal.

The new designation included 2,000 square miles in North Central Washington -- the only habitat listed as critical in Washington state.

Joe Scott, spokesman for Conservation Northwest, said his group joined four others that filed to intervene in the lawsuit because Washington's habitat -- which includes parts of the Loomis State Forest and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest -- must be protected for the survival and recovery of lynx.

Scott said it's surprising that the snowmobilers are challenging the critical habitat in Washington state.

"Looking at the maps, it's not going to be a serious impediment to snowmobiling," he said.

In most places, he said, snowmobilers are already restricted to roads, and it's the Forest Plan, not the critical habitat designation, that could limit expansion into other parts of the forest.

Another issue that snowmobilers in Washington have raised, he said, is the habitat here is no longer critical to lynx because recent fires, particularly the Tripod Fire in 2006, have already wiped out its habitat.

"One of the ecological facts of lynx and their obligatory prey -- snowshoe hare -- is that they're tied to these systems that burn regularly. They are dependent on fire," he said.

The habitat is not lost to fire, only temporarily unusable because it cannot support a vigorous snowshoe hare population, he said. But the lodgepole pine forest will recover, bringing even better habitat than that which burned, Scott said.