Animal Rights Activists Lose Lynx Lawsuit in Maine
Animal rights activists have lost their latest battle to stop hunting and trapping in Maine. On October 20 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston affirmed a 2009 decision by Judge John Woodcock, Jr., dismissing the animal rights groups’ Canada lynx lawsuit.
This decision provides a very important national precedent. It’s been a long trail getting to this point, but here’s a quick summary:
On November 10, 2009, Judge Woodcock of the Federal District Court in Bangor denied a request from the Animal Welfare Institute of Idaho and the Wildlife Institute of Maine for a permanent injunction against the state of Maine to stop hunting and trapping in order to protect Canada lynx.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the lynx as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act on March 24, 2000. But it has been illegal to hunt or trap lynx in Maine since 1967.
The most important thing for you to know is this: Maine probably has more lynx today than ever, an estimated total exceeding 1,000 animals. As far as Maine officials are concerned, Canada lynx are neither threatened nor endangered. They are doing well here.
Maine is on the southern end of the range for Canada lynx that are plentiful to our north in Quebec — so plentiful that they are hunted and trapped there. The lynx population here rises and falls along with the population of the animal’s principle prey: snowshoe hares.
Along with the excellent work of Maine Assistant Attorneys General Chris Taub and Nancy Macirowski, the testimony of Dr. Ken Elowe of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) was the decisive factor in convincing Judge Woodcock that the lawsuit had no merit.
Twice in the last three years, animal rights groups have used the ESA’s lynx listing to seek declaratory relief and injunctions in federal court against Maine laws and regulations.
The first lawsuit, Animal Protection Institute v. Martin, resulted in an October 4, 2007, Consent Decree in which IF&W made a commitment to new regulations restricting the type, size, and placement of traps in Maine. IF&W paid $140,000 in attorney’s fees to API as part of that settlement.
Much to the state’s surprise, a similarly-named animal rights group, The Animal Welfare Institute, along with the Wildlife Alliance of Maine — led by people who were a party to the earlier consent decree — filed another lawsuit on August 11, 2008, seeking the same injunctive relief and charging that IF&W was violating the ESA by allowing trapping practices that result in the capture of some lynx.
On November 26, 2008, Judge Woodcock issued a fifty-page order on AWI’s motion for preliminary injunction, granting the motion in part and denying it in part. The Court ordered the state to “immediately take all action necessary to avoid the trapping of Canada lynx in Conibear traps.”
IF&W acted swiftly and adopted an emergency rule on December 4, 2008, imposing additional limitations on the way Conibear traps can be set in Wildlife Management Districts 1 – 11.
Unfortunately, within two weeks of the emergency order, two Canada lynx were found dead as a result of encounters with Conibear traps, and AWI moved for an emergency temporary restraining order.
That is the order that Judge Woodcock rejected on November 10, 2009. In mid-April and late June of that year, the Judge hosted six days of hearings on this matter. AWI specifically was asking that leghold and Conibear traps be prohibited on land where lynx are present.
The state (Office of the Attorney General) and IF&W defended against the suit with support from a group of interveners consisting of sportsmen’s and trapper’s organizations. At the national level the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance has been very involved in defending against all of these lawsuits, and at the state level, the Maine Trappers Association has been in the lead.
The animal rights groups immediately appealed Woodcock’s November 10, 2009, decision to the First Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals.
After hearing arguments in early September, that Court issued on October 20, 2010, a unanimous affirmation of Woodcock’s entire decision that rejected the latest attempt by animal rights activists to stop hunting and trapping in Maine’s north woods. The decision sets a very important precedent for similar lawsuits across the country.
“This decision will make it harder in the future for the animal fanatics to use the federal ESA to attack trapping, hunting, or any other activity that could result in a threatened or endangered species being taken incidentally,” reported Skip Trask, lobbyist for the Maine Trappers Association and an important participant in Maine’s defense against the lawsuit.
Judge Woodcock’s decision plainly states that those who sue to stop trapping and hunting must prove not only that an occasional protected animal is taken, but that “irreparable harm” would be caused to the entire population of protected animals.
In other words, the most important aspect of the judge’s decision is that the take of individual members of a reasonably numerous protected species does not necessarily meet the ESA requirement of irreparable harm. He also found that the occasional catch of lynx in Maine foothold traps, from which they are normally released without harm, did not constitute irreparable harm.
The judge was right. In the seven-year period from 1999 to 2006, during which thirty lynx were caught in foothold traps, IF&W was able to assess just under half, and only one had an injury that required veterinary treatment. None of the thirty died as a result of being captured in the trap.
In 2007 and 2008, eight lynx were caught in foothold traps. IF&W assessed five of them. Two sustained no injuries, and the others had only minor skin lacerations. In fact, IF&W offered evidence that some lynx repeatedly visit traps for food despite being repeatedly trapped.
The Court of Appeals concluded its decision with critical comments about the animal rights groups, noting that actions they agreed to in their first lawsuit they argued against in their second lawsuit. “AWI’s bait and switch tactics in the courts are to be deplored, not rewarded,” wrote the Court.
While establishing an important precedent, this decision is unlikely to deter the constant filing of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act. This is simply another chapter — albeit an important one — in this particular war, while we wait for Congress to amend the Act and limit these abuses of the legal system.