A federal judge ordered Maine wildlife officials on Wednesday to take immediate steps to prevent Canada lynx from being caught in the type of trap that killed one of the threatened cats earlier this month.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock was a minor victory for two animal rights groups that claim Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officials are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing trapping practices that could harm lynx.
But Woodcock denied the groups’ larger request for a temporary suspension of some trapping in lynx territory. In issuing his decision on the request for a temporary injunction, Woodcock said the groups had to date failed to prove the species was “irreparably harmed” when a lynx is trapped and released uninjured.
The Animal Welfare Institute and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine filed suit in District Court earlier this year after eight lynx — a federally designated threatened species — were reported caught in leghold traps during the 2007 trapping season.
All of the lynx were subsequently released with little to no visible injuries. Two more lynx have been caught in leghold traps and released this year.
But the groups’ case gained traction when it was revealed that a lynx was found dead in a trap in Aroostook County on Nov. 17.
The wildcat died in what is known as a Conibear or “body-gripper” trap that had been set for other species. DIF&W officials, however, said the trapper had not properly followed trap setting rules specifically meant to prevent lynx from being harmed.
Earlier this week, DIF&W officials announced plans to clarify the rules governing such body-gripper traps before next year’s trapping season to avoid similar incidents. But in his ruling Wednesday, Woodcock said he was “perplexed” as to why DIF&W wasn’t acting immediately to ensure the state’s trapping regulations are compliant with the Endangered Species Act.
“The state says additional protection can wait until next year. However, as the Nov. 17, 2008, incident confirms, the risk to the lynx is present today,” Woodcock wrote. “The court concludes the ESA requires greater urgency.”
DIF&W Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin said in a statement that the department was reviewing the judge’s order and would discuss it with the state’s attorneys next week. The issue has also been put on the DIF&W Advisory Council’s agenda for next Thursday.
The council could vote to initiate an emergency rulemaking process to change the trapping regulations before the current season ends on Dec. 31.
Woodcock will continue to hear arguments on Wildlife Alliance of Maine and the Animal Welfare Institute’s larger case. The groups want a permanent injunction to prohibit trapping that could endanger lynx until the state receives a federal permit allowing the “incidental take” of lynx through otherwise legal trapping.
He made clear Wednesday that he did not believe the evidence submitted so far supported additional restrictions on leghold traps.
“However, with the recent death, the plaintiffs have demonstrated ‘harm’ to at least one lynx from the Conibear trap,” Woodcock wrote. “It is a greater leap to extrapolate risk to the lynx as a species from the death of one, but the risk of the current Conibear restrictions to some lynx is unarguable.”
Skip Trask with the Maine Trappers Association said he believes the judge would have denied all of the groups’ petitions for temporary relief had the one lynx not been killed. Trask said he was pleased that trapping can continue, albeit likely with revised rules.
“We will certainly support the emergency rules to fix what appears to be an oversight,” he said.
Daryl DeJoy, Wildlife Alliance of Maine’s executive director, said the groups continue to believe that both body-gripper and leghold traps pose significant risk to lynx and could irreparably harm the species. DeJoy said he believes the state of Maine is in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act by allowing any trapping that could ensnare lynx.
DeJoy also said he doubts the federal incidental take permit will be issued anytime soon.
“In the meantime, I believe lynx will continue to be taken,” DeJoy said. “And I expect very little reporting from here on out unless the lynx is completely unharmed.”
DIF&W largely relies on trappers to report accidental trapping of lynx.
The parties also disagree about the overall health of the lynx population in Maine, which is the only state in the eastern U.S. with a self-sustaining population of the wildcats. While DIF&W estimates the population at 500 and possibly growing, others say the numbers are shrinking as populations of the cats’ primary prey, the snowshoe hare, decrease.