AUGUSTA, Maine — After falling short in the courts, two animal welfare groups are urging the federal government to put more pressure on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to stop the accidental trapping of Canada lynx.
The Wildlife Alliance of Maine and the Animal Welfare Institute sent a letter Thursday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calling on the agency to use the Endangered Species Act to address what they describe as ongoing violations of the federal law.
Because lynx are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to capture, harm, harass or kill the reclusive wildcats. At least 47 lynx have been caught in traps in Maine over the past decade with the vast majority of the cats released alive.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock sided with the state, ruling that the two groups had failed to prove that DIF&W’s current trapping regulations posed a threat to the overall lynx population in Maine. But Woodcock did warn the state that it remains legally liable under the Endangered Species Act for lynx inadvertently caught during the state-regulated trapping season.
“In sum, the service is now presented with an extraordinary circumstance where a federal judge has found an ongoing violation of the ESA, and the agency engaging in the unlawful conduct has flatly admitted to past and likely future violations of the act,” wrote the groups’ attorneys, William Eubanks II and Eric Glitzenstein.
“In such a situation, it is incumbent upon the service to exercise its statutory enforcement authority to ensure that such conceded violations are halted and to send a clear message that neither private nor governmental actors may violate the ESA with impunity.”
The letter is the latest attempt by WAM and the Animal Welfare Institute to force Maine’s wildlife agency to change its trapping policies to protect the lynx. Under an earlier lawsuit involving a different organization, DIF&W rewrote its regulations in order to help deter accidental lynx trappings, but cats continued to be caught.
DIF&W successfully argued in court that most lynx are unharmed by the leghold traps, other than small scrapes or bruises, and that even the loss of a few individual lynx did not constitute a threat to the overall population in Maine. They also note that more lynx are killed by cars every year in Maine than by traps.
Terri Edwards, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office in Hadley, Mass., said Thursday that staff members were still reviewing the letter and were not prepared to comment.
For several years, Maine wildlife officials have been working to acquire an “incidental take permit” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that shields the state for accidental “take” of lynx during otherwise legal activities. The state filed its latest draft permit application in August 2008.
Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist with the USFWS office in Orono, said Thursday that he hopes the agency will make a decision on the permit sometime next year. McCollough is preparing a detailed environmental impact statement that is required for any requests for incidental take permits involving threatened or endangered species.
The state’s permit application as well as the environmental assessment eventually will be posted for public comment.
“We are working as hard as we can to get this processed,” McCollough said. “It just takes some time. It’s a very complicated issue.”
The legal wrangling over trapping is taking place amidst considerable debate about the health of Maine’s lynx population. While DIF&W’s official estimates place 1,000 or more lynx in the state, the two organizations involved in the lawsuit and others insist the figures are likely much lower.
McCollough said it would be pure speculation for him to give a number, explaining that there are no good methods for assessing lynx numbers over large areas, such as Maine’s North Woods.
But McCollough said that in the one well-researched area of lynx habitat in the state — near Clayton Lake — data suggest that the lynx population has declined. Recent research by University of Maine students and biologists also have found evidence of a steep decline in populations of snowshoe hare — the lynx’s primary food source — in both Maine and parts of Canada, he said.