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Feds unveil final lynx habitat plan

The Federal government on Wednesday will publish its final plan on what areas of the northern U.S. are declared "critical habitat'' for the threatened lynx forest cat.

The plan affects about 39,000 square miles nationwide including just over 8,000 square miles in northern Minnesota across Cook, Lake, St. Louis and Koochiching counties.

The designation affects county, state, federal and some private forest land -- but only when the federal government is conducting business or spending money on that land, such as a highway, recreation or logging project.

Phil Delphey, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Twin Cities field office, said the designation of critical habitat will have little effect on Minnesota forests because most agencies already have been considering lynx needs before conducting any projects.

For example, both Voyageurs National Park and the Superior National Forest are included in the habitat area but already have lynx management efforts in place.

"Because lynx already are present across that entire area of northern Minnesota, we've already been working with almost all of the [affected land managers] as projects move forward,'' Delphey told the News Tribune. "Lynx already are on everyone's agenda up there,''

The critical habitat designation is supported by conservation and environmental groups but was opposed by some logging interests and some rural county commissioners who dislike federal regulations on non-federal land.

Forests in Maine, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington also are included in the habitat plan that now becomes part of the government's official plan to restore lynx to their former status as a thriving species.

Lynx first received federal protection as threatened in 2000 after their numbers crashed across their native range for several years.

The government named just 1,841 square miles nationally as critical habitat in 2006, but that designation was loudly criticized as ignoring basic science and was later thrown out by the agency itself.

Scientists have confirmed lynx have been born and reproduced in northern Minnesota and surmise that as many as a few hundred of the cats may live here at any given time. But they also note that the population numbers fluctuate wildly and are tied to movements into and out of Canada, often based on the abundance of their primary food, snowshoe hares.

Areas designated as critical habitat include boreal forest landscapes that provide snowshoe hares for prey, large piles of dead trees for dens and winter snow conditions that are generally deep and fluffy for extended periods of time.