By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A federal judge ordered U.S. wildlife managers on Wednesday to enlarge habitat protections in Idaho, Montana and Colorado for the Canada lynx, a rare wild cat that roams the Rockies and mountain forests of several other states.
Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in 2014 when it revised its critical habitat designations for the lynx with little or no expansion beyond the original plan issued five years earlier.
The Canada lynx, whose large paws make it well adapted to hunting in deep, mountain snows, was listed in 2000 as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The lynx is not considered imperiled in Alaska or Canada, where it ranges widely in forest areas, but its population in the Lower 48 states is believed to be small, though actual numbers are unknown, according to government scientists.
But federal wildlife managers put off a plan to protect areas deemed critical to the survival and recovery of the elusive feline, which is slightly larger than a bobcat and about twice as big as a domestic house cat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 set aside about 39,000 square miles (101,000 sq km) where logging, mining, snowmobiling and other activities that could disturb the lynx would be restricted or banned in parts of six states.
Conservationists quickly sued, arguing the plan offered insufficient protections in Idaho, Montana and Colorado.
A federal judge in 2010 sided with conservationists and ordered the agency to reassess and potentially expand critical habitat acreage in those states.
In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified 38,954 square miles (100,890 sq km) in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington state, Maine and Minnesota as critical habitat for the lynx, a decision that triggered yet another lawsuit by conservationists seeking greater protections.
In his ruling on Wednesday, Christensen ordered the agency once again to designate critical habitat for the lynx with an eye toward adding parts of certain national forests in Idaho and Montana and to include areas of Colorado inhabited by the lynx and its favored prey, the snowshoe hare.
However, the judge denied conservationists' demands for additional critical habitat in Oregon and Washington state.
Michael Garrity, head of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, hailed the ruling but accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of dragging its feet on lynx protections for years, spending time and money instead on legal wrangling.
"Lynx populations continue to decline while the agency responsible for ensuring their survival lets the places lynx live and reproduce be destroyed," he said.
An agency representative could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Editing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)