Lynx forest cats, the bobcat-size predators with large feet that roam far northern Minnesota, would no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act under a proposal unveiled Thursday by federal officials.
The cat currently is listed as threatened in Minnesota, Maine and some Western states, giving it some protections from illegal killing and habitat destruction.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it will begin drafting a rule to revoke the lynx's threatened species status in place since 2000 after groups sued the agency to force protections.
The move to de-list, if it advances, would put lynx management back in the hands of state and tribal natural resource agencies.
Minnesota has had a wildly fluctuating population of lynx in recent decades that appeared to depend on the population of snowshoe hares, the cat's primary food. State officials at one time said the cat wasn't really native to the state but only moved from Canada during some winters.
But scientists who found ways to trap, collar and study the cat in the 1990s and 2000s soon found dozens in northern Minnesota that stayed and bred here, including new kittens, confirming the state's native population. Ron Moen, a researcher for the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute who has worked with the Forest Service on Minnesota lynx, said on average up to 200 lynx live in the state, most in St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties. State officials continue to get regular reports of lynx sightings from across the region.
A 2017 report from U.S. Forest Service biologists confirmed several lynx families in the region based on DNA evidence from hair and scat samples, most from the Superior National Forest. The report shows relatively stable lynx populations here since 2010.
Still, some researchers say their days in Minnesota may be numbered because they depend on cold, snowy winters to hold their advantage over larger predators - namely the ability to run across deep snow thanks to their large feet. Scientists say lynx will be pushed farther north, or to higher elevations in mountain states, as climate change continues.
But a two-year study by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists concluded that lynx numbers are stable or increasing, at least in Colorado and Maine. The cats also are found in Idaho, Washington and Montana.
Lynx management in recent years included considering lynx habitat needs when planning national forest timber sales.