Critical habitat for lynx considered in Arrowhead

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Much of Northeast Minnesota could be considered critical habitat for Canada lynx under a proposal unveiled Thursday from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The lynx is a wild cat on the Federal Endangered Species list, and a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could restrict some activities like road building in Minnesota's Arrowhead in an effort to protect the cat and its habitat. That raises concern for some local officials, but others say the designation will actually have little noticeable effect.

A lynx was spotted just this week near Duluth, according to a Duluth-based wildlife researcher, but it's one of the few. They aren't big cats like cougars, and are known for their appetite for snowshoe hare. They're identified by their short tail and tufted ears. There might be 250 lynx in the area north and east of Duluth to the Canadian border.

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That's roughly the area proposed yesterday as critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It says Minnesota's protected lynx range should increase from 317 square miles within Voyageurs National park, to more than 8-thousand square miles, including Cook and Lake Counties, and much of St. Louis. Similar increases are proposed for lynx range in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

But even within Minnesota's Arrowhead, most people will see little effect, said Phil Delphey, an endangered species coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Fort Snelling.

"The only regulator impact that critical habitat designation has, is the activities of federal agencies," Delphey said. "So any action that a federal agency authorizes, funds, or carries out, that may affect critical habitat, that action has to undergo a consultation between the federal agency and the Fish and Wildlife service."

The new recommendation is similar to one made in 2005, but pressure from a Bush Administration official limited that range to just Voyageurs Park and other national parks in the western states. The official resigned, and a federal judge told Fish and Wildlife to try again.

Still, in Minnesota, the effect of the expanded habitat could be negligible. Much of the arrowhead is taken up by the Superior National Forest. Forest Biologist Mary Shed said the Superior has been managing projects like logging and road building for several years, as though the forest were already designed critical lynx habitat.

"Ever since the lynx was listed, we immediately began sort of affording it special attention in our management, and through our forest plan revision which was just in 2004," Shed said. "We also worked very closely with the Fish and Wildlife service to make sure that the plan would work toward recovery of the species."

Wayne Brandt, director of the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, said he expects little trouble from the designation for his member loggers. Lynx do well in disturbed forest, like the re-growth that follows a logging cut.

"It's still too early to say definitively on the new proposal, whether it's going to be a problem, but we're optimistic that it won't be problem," Brandt said.

The designation does create some apprehension. Cook County Commissioner Jim Johnson says his heavily forested county is 70-percent federal property. The new designation could get in the way for some projects not targeted on federal land.

"The state might have a timber sale, lets say off the Gunflint Trail someplace. And in order to get to that timber sale they may have to cross federal land," Johnson said. "And then the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to do an impact statement of some kind to determine how that would affect the lynx. So that could slow the process down."

A 60-day public comment period has begun, with a public meeting on the habitat proposal in Duluth in late March. Fish and Wildlife officials expect a final designation by about this time next year.

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