Wildlife officials in the United States declared Canada lynx recovered on Thursday and said the snow-loving wild cats no longer need special protections following steps to preserve their habitat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will begin drafting a rule to revoke the lynx's threatened listing across the Lower 48 state under the Endangered Species Act. Wildlife advocates said they would challenge the move in court.
First imposed in 2000, the threatened designation has interrupted numerous logging and road building projects on federal lands, frustrating industry groups and Western lawmakers.
Some scientists and wildlife advocates have warned that climate change could reduce lynx habitat and the availability of its primary food source — snowshoe hares.
Thursday's decision came after government biologists shortened their time span for considering climate change threats, from 2100 to 2050, because of what they said were uncertainties in long-term climate models.
An assessment by government biologists based on that shorter time span concluded lynx populations remain resilient and even have increased versus historical levels in parts of Colorado and Maine.
Canada lynx are about the size bobcats, but with huge paws to help them navigate deep snow. The animals also are found in Montana, Minnesota, Idaho and Washington state.
There's no reliable estimate of their population, leaving officials to rely on information about habitat and hare populations to gauge the species' status
"Based on what we know, we think the habitat has improved, protections around the habitat have improved, and therefore lynx populations have improved," said Jodi Bush, U.S. Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in Montana.
In Maine, officials said, easements protecting more than 2 million acres of forest have benefited lynx. In Western states, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management adopted land management plans providing similar benefits, they said.
Under an earlier assessment of lynx, published in December 2016, U.S. government biologists predicted some populations would disappear by 2100. That was based on models predicting widespread and substantial changes to the animals' snowy habitat due to climate change.
Bush said those models turned out to be too uncertain to justify using them as a basis for whether lynx are recovered.
A similar conclusion was reached by the agency in 2014 for another snow-loving creature — the North American wolverine. In that case, a federal judge overruled rejected the government's decision not to give wolverines protections, saying the animal was "squarely in the path of climate change."
Wildlife advocates said Thursday's announcement was similarly flawed.
"The earlier finding was that lynx remain in danger and are likely to be exterminated by the end of the century. Since that's the best science, then we need to follow that," said Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center.
Two Republican lawmakers from Montana — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines — said they welcomed the move toward lifting protections. Daines said the recovery would result in better management of public forests and reflected years of collaboration between states, tribes, conservation groups, hunters and others.
No timeline has been set for when lynx protections could be lifted, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland.