Conservation groups sue USFS to protect threatened species in Rio Grande Natl Forest

Two juvenile Canadian lynx kittens crowd each other inside a hollowed-out log.

SAN LUIS VALLEY — The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society and the Western Environmental Law Center filed two lawsuits against the United States Forest Service (USFS) over its newly revised land management plan for the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF).

“New Forest Service rules gave Rio Grande National Forest managers the chance to vastly improve how they oversee the many uses of these important public lands,” said John Mellgren, general counsel at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Rather than seizing the opportunity to restore ecological integrity to these lands, the Forest Service instead ignored unambiguous requirements for ensuring the sustainability of our national forests.”

For the past six years, conservation groups have provided science-based recommendations and solutions for protecting species and their diverse habitats in RGNF. But, the lawsuit contends, USFS’ plan slashes protections -- including habitat – and fails to regulate recreational uses, impacting both the threatened Canada lynx and the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly in violation of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and USFS regulations.

The RGNF is home to five of the 11 colonies of critically endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, which can only be found above 12,000 feet and in just a small area of Colorado.

The lawsuit filed by Defenders of Wildlife also challenges the rollback of critical protections for lynx habitat in the Rio Grande National Forest. The Canada lynx relies heavily on the RGNF, which encompasses more than half the locations in Colorado where lynx are consistently found. But the population of lynx in the forest is in dire straits, and federal scientists predict that the lynx may disappear completely from Colorado within a matter of decades. The Forest Service’s new plan has now opened lynx habitat to logging, one of the cat’s biggest threats.

“This plan encourages a crisis management response,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “After years of public meeting participation, providing substantive comments and reviewing hundreds of letters from concerned citizens – who clearly support the management of healthy forests, ecosystem services, and protection of critical habitat – the final forest plan, instead renders a hands-off approach…Standards and guidelines have been removed, leading to less comprehensive, more reactive decision making.” 

“The [RGNF] Plan took a completely wrong turn during the last administration by omitting protections for a range of imperiled species,” said Adam Rissien, rewilding advocate with WildEarth Guardians. “We were hopeful the Forest Service would have reversed course, but this plan still fails to safeguard habitat, not only for Canada lynx, but also the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otter, western bumblebee, bighorn sheep, and the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly.”

“We must hold the Forest Service to a higher standard for protecting critical wildlife corridors like Spruce Hole and Wolf Creek Pass. The Forest Service should prioritize locally driven, conservation-focused plans to help us meet the national goal to protect 30% of lands and waters by 2030,” says Jim Ramey, Colorado state director for The Wilderness Society.

“The Rio Grande National Forest incorporates much of Colorado’s most important wildlife habitat, and some of our state’s largest expanses of wild and undeveloped habitat,” said Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The public deserves a management plan for the next 20 years that we can count on for protecting the very essence of the Rio Grande National Forest.”

  “Scientists are saying the Canada lynx population in the Rio Grande National Forest is in the ‘emergency room, but the Forest Service refuses to provide this species with the care it needs,” said Lauren McCain, senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s baffling that the Forest Service chose to weaken protections for lynx on the forest. They left us no option but to sue to help recover the species in the Southern Rockies.”

The Rio Grande National Forest is a 1.8-million-acre gem in the middle of southern Colorado and includes the headwaters of its namesake river. The forest boasts a diversity of ecosystems from lower-elevation sagebrush and grasslands to the dominant high-elevation spruce-fir forest and fragile alpine areas. Proper management of this expansive area is key to preserving critical habitat and biodiversity in the southern Rockies and buffering against the stresses our native wildlife are experiencing from climate change. 

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