The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is extending protections for threatened Canada lynx in the lower 48 states but has refused to designate new critical habitat, an action wildlife advocates say they'll challenge in court.
While the forest-dwelling wild cat will gain protections from hunting and trapping, the USFWS says it has determined potential habitat for the animals in the Southern Rockies of Colorado, New Mexico and portions of Wyoming are not essential for the species' conservation and have declined to designate those areas as new critical habitat.
That means fewer restrictions on human activities such as logging, mining and recreational use that might impact forest areas the cats need for their survival, say wildlife organizations that have pledged to challenge those exclusions with a lawsuit.
The federal agency says in extending its protections, it was concentrating on regions where lynx are able to survive in the long-term, and that protections will be extended to lynx "where found" currently.
The animals might show up in other habitats, agency scientists said, but that doesn't guarantee they would survive there.
"Either the habitat there is marginal, or it's just too far away from the main population," says USFWS wildlife biologist Jim Zelenak. "We need to stick to the biology of the animals."
While wildlife advocates say the extended protections are a welcome move, they're concerned about the lack of new habitat designations.
The group WildEarth said it was disappointed critical habitat area was reduced by around 2,500 square miles from the proposal considered by the agency last year.
The USFWS is designating more than 38,000 square miles in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Minnesota and Maine as critical habitat.
Lynx, classified as threatened in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act, are found from Maine to Washington and south throughout the Rocky Mountains.
They are also found in Alaska and in Canada.
Lynx are similar to bobcats, although larger, and the two species share parts of their respective ranges.
An adult lynx can weigh between 18 to 24 pounds, about twice as heavy as the average domestic cat.
They are mostly nocturnal creatures, although they can be active in daytime hunting snowshoe hares, their main food source.
There have been efforts to reintroduce lynx to some of their former habitats, including a program in Colorado that saw them successfully reestablished in the state after becoming extinct there in the 1970s.