By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON Idaho (Reuters) - Conservationists filed a lawsuit on Monday demanding that the Obama administration give greater protection to the Canada lynx, a type of rare wild cat that roams mountainous areas across the northern United States and the Rocky Mountains.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in September it was extending federal Endangered Species Act safeguards to the animals wherever they are found in the lower 48 U.S. states, and that it was designating nearly 39,000 square miles in six states as critical habitat for the lynx.

That classification seeks to limit activities such as logging, mining, motorized recreation and trapping in terrain that the thickly-furred felines rely on to survive.

But WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups said in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana that the wildlife agency failed to list as protected habitat vast tracts of public land in the Rockies where lynx are already found, or in which they could exist if the areas contained enough snowshoe hares, their preferred prey.

For example, the lawsuit said, federal wildlife managers declined to place restrictions on activities in mountainous forests in Idaho and Montana where lynx have been accidentally trapped by sportsmen seeking to snare bobcats or wolves.

"By ignoring huge swaths of lynx habitat, the Service is undermining the benefits of protecting individual lynx wherever they are found in the Lower 48," Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians, told Reuters.

"To recover in the American West, lynx need habitat protections throughout their range," Kerr said.

Representatives for the Fish and Wildlife Service have said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment on Monday's filing.

The agency has said its move to classify all lynx in the contiguous United States as threatened meant the animals, one of only seven wild cat species in the nation, now have what they need to thrive.

Lynx, which are also found in the wilds of Canada and Alaska, are known for their large, thickly-furred paws and elongated hind legs that let them easily navigate deep snow.

Considered a medium-sized cat, they typically measure about 30 to 35 inches long and weigh between 14 and 31 pounds. The Fish and Wildlife Service says its population in the lower 48 states is small, but that actual figures are unknown.


(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Susan Heavey)