On August 17, AWI and allies filed a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for allowing trappers in Maine to seriously injure and kill (“take”) Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), a federally protected species. The lawsuit requests that the court close down the state’s trapping season. As we go to press, we await news on when the case will be heard.
The population of Canada lynx in Maine is particularly important because, according to federal officials, it is the largest such population in the contiguous United States. The last estimate, from 2006, indicated that there were between 750 and 1,000 lynx in the state. While Canada lynx once roamed throughout the northeastern United States, they are now largely limited in this country outside of Alaska to Maine and portions of Minnesota and western states.
According to a 1999 study by the US Forest Service, “Lynx appear to be extremely susceptible to trapping, and where trapping is permitted it can be (and has been) a significant source of mortality.” Each year in Maine, trappers targeting fox, mink, fishers, and other furbearers seriously injure or kill lynx. Between 1999 and 2012, 70 were confirmed trapped. Because Canada lynx are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), states cannot allow them to be harmed or killed even accidentally by trappers without first obtaining an “incidental take permit” from the USFWS.
The federal agency provided the state of Maine with such a permit last year even though the state’s trapping program failed to provide sufficient protection for and minimize harm to lynx, thus violating the ESA. The permit allowed, over a 15-year period, for no more than three lynx to be killed, nine to be severely injured (but able to be rehabilitated), and 183 to be trapped with minor injuries and released.
However, very soon after the USFWS approved the permit in November 2014, two lynx were already dead via traps, forcing Maine to shut down trapping throughout the northern part of the state in early December. More than 20 other lynx are known to have been incidentally caught in traps during last year’s trapping season. More have likely been killed and harmed in traps, as the USFWS estimates that approximately 75 percent of trapped lynx are not reported. Trappers, as one would suspect, are loath to report trapped lynx, given that doing so could trigger further restrictions. In addition, the permit from the USFWS allows body-gripping Conibear traps, cable restraints, and foothold traps to be used in areas where lynx live.
In late August, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife released new trapping regulations for the 2015 season (regulations that were the product of a collaboration with the Maine Trappers Association). Arguably as a result of evidence provided by AWI and its co-plaintiffs, the rules did reflect an effort to tighten regulations by banning the use, on or above ground level, of killer-type traps with a jaw spread of up to 8 inches unless those traps are equipped with lynx-exclusion devices.
Although these changes do represent an effort by the state to prevent lethal take of lynx, they do not go far enough. Specifically, they continue to sanction the use of some sizes of body-gripping Conibear traps (“blind sets” or killer-type traps 5x5 inches or smaller), as well as the use of foothold traps, cable restraints/snares, and rat traps, all without exclusion devices.
The new regulations also do not resolve other issues raised in the lawsuit because the permit (which was granted prior to the new regulations’ mandate of exclusion devices on some traps) is itself woefully deficient under the ESA. AWI and its co-plaintiffs assert that the USFWS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in connection with the incidental take of Canada lynx via Maine’s furbearer trapping program—a requirement under NEPA in order to properly analyze the environmental threats of such a program and the potential mitigation of such threats.
Separately from what is happening with Canada lynx in Maine, the USFWS is also currently evaluating the status of the species as a whole and deciding whether the animal should continue to be listed as “threatened” under the ESA, uplisted to “endangered,” or removed altogether from ESA protection. Although it is good that the USFWS is doing another population estimate and examining whether there is enough habitat set aside for the species, this review must be monitored closely. Canada lynx are by no means recovered, and there is no justification, therefore, for stripping them of needed protections under the ESA.