By Laura Zuckerman
March 21 (Reuters) - Conservationists sued Montana wildlife officials on Thursday, claiming the state violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act by allowing hunters to set traps in areas known to be inhabited by the imperiled Canada lynx.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and other groups claim in a lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, that at least nine of the rare creatures have been illegally caught because of trapping and snaring in Montana that is aimed at wolves, bobcats and other animals.
Lynx were added to the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2000 in the lower 48 states, where they roam the high country from Maine to Washington state and south through the Rocky Mountains.
The elusive animals have long legs and large, well-furred paws, making them highly adapted for hunting in deep snow for their principal prey, snowshoe hares.
Conservationists accuse Montana's wildlife agency and the commission that oversees it of violating a federal ban on harming or killing protected animals without a special permit.
They contend that state officials violated the Endangered Species Act by carving out licensed trapping and snaring zones in areas known to be occupied by lynx, whose numbers in Montana are estimated at 300.
The groups argue that federal biologists who study lynx believe the medium-sized cats are "extremely susceptible" to trapping and snaring.
"The Forest Service notes that lynx are relatively easy to capture, appear to have little fear of human scent ... and where trapping is permitted it can be a significant source of mortality," conservationist said in legal filings.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had not seen the lawsuit Thursday afternoon and could not immediately comment, said agency spokesman Ron Aasheim.
Michael Garrity, head of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said Montana is in violation of federal law, as well as the law of common sense.
"It is stupid to trap a threatened species when the federal government is spending millions trying to save them," he told Reuters.
Trapping and snaring this year in the Northern Rockies for wolves and fur bearers such as bobcats has inadvertently caught moose, elk, deer, dogs and even a U.S. park official.
A Canada lynx last year was documented in Idaho for the first time in 15 years after the animal was captured in a foot-hold trap set for bobcat on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman.; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Andre Grenon)