CHEYENNE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred little when it designated a vast area scattered over six states as critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, a judge ruled Thursday.
The designated habitat totals 39,000 square miles, an area the size of Indiana that includes parts of northern Idaho, Maine, Minnesota and Washington and swaths of western Montana and western Wyoming.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the habitat last year, prompting a lawsuit from snowmobile enthusiast groups in Wyoming and Washington state. The groups worry the designation could close off areas to snowmobiling and harm snowmobile-related businesses.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal upheld most of the designation after hearing oral arguments in the case. Her lone exception was certain national forest land in the North Cascades in northern Washington state, where Freudenthal said Fish and Wildlife didn't adequately consider the economic effects of designating the habitat.
"To be perfectly frank, the court is not of the opinion to enjoin the entire 2009 rule," said Freudenthal, issuing one of her first rulings since becoming a judge in June.
She is the wife of Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who nominated her for the bench.
"We're really pleased she's upheld the designation almost entirely," said Sean Helle, an attorney with the environmental law group Earthjustice, which represented environmental groups that intervened on the government's side in the case.
The Wyoming State Snowmobile Association and Washington State Snowmobile Association sued Fish and Wildlife last year over the habitat designation.
The designated habitat covers more than 20 times more area than what Fish and Wildlife designated as critical habitat for the Canada lynx in 2006. Fish and Wildlife revised that habitat designation after it became known that a deputy assistant Interior secretary, Julie MacDonald, improperly influenced findings for lynx and other species.
"This rule is replete with controversy. That's why we're all here today," Beth Ginsberg, an attorney for the snowmobile groups, said in court.
Ginsberg argued that Fish and Wildlife didn't go far enough to study the potential effects of the new habitat designation. The habitat designation already has harmed at least one Washington state snowmobile sales business, she said.
Meanwhile, 500 square miles of recently burned forest in Washington state can't reasonably be considered lynx habitat until the trees grow back years from now, Ginsberg said.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney John Martin, representing the Fish and Wildlife Service, said federal law doesn't require Fish and Wildlife to do more than a basic environmental analysis. He pointed out that most of the designated habitat is on federal land already being managed to protect lynx.
The snowmobile groups have a "subjective apprehension" about what the federal government "might do in the future," he said.
Helle, the Earthjustice attorney, argued that even the burned-out area should be part of the designated lynx habitat. Forest fires help lynx habitat by encouraging the growth of healthy young trees, he said.
Freudenthal said she would issue a written ruling soon.