BILLINGS, Mont. -- A federal judge on Wednesday set a 2018 deadline for the government to complete a long-delayed recovery plan for imperiled Canada lynx in the Lower 48 states.
Wildlife advocates had asked U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy to push the government into faster action on the snow-loving big cats, which were added to the list of threatened species in 2000.
But after federal officials said budget issues and competing priorities were slowing their work, Molloy indicated Wednesday in an order that he was reluctant to second-guess them. He said the January 2018 deadline proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was reasonable.
"It will not disrupt the Service's other recovery work, but will also set a date certain by which the Service will be required to take action," the judge wrote.
Molloy also ordered the agency to submit semi-annual progress reports each January and July.
Federal officials were forced to come up with a timeline for the recovery document when Molloy last month expressed frustration with the government's track record of delays on the issue. The judge said the "stutter-step" approach by federal officials since the animal first gained protections necessitated court intervention.
Advocates wanted the recovery plan done by the end of 2016.
Lynx dwell in the forest, where they are rarely seen, and there's no reliable estimate of their population.
They range across parts of 14 states in the Northeast, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes and the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon.
Federal wildlife official say that lynx face a relatively low degree of threat compared to other protected species. They have proposed large areas in Montana, Wyoming and other states as critical habitat for the lynx. The recovery plan would detail the additional steps needed to ensure the species' long-term survival.
But a coalition of conservation groups sued the government last year for not completing that document more than a decade after lynx received federal protections.
The plaintiffs in the case are Friends of the Wild Swan, Rocky Mountain Wild, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.