Conservation groups win Forest Service challenge to elk, grizzly habitat in Helena National Forest

By: - December 29, 2021 1:30 pm

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay | Public domain).

In what two conservation groups are calling a victory for the average hunter wanting hunting access for elk, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council have won a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service to halt commercial logging and road building on public lands near Lincoln.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, the lawsuit in part was a plea to listen to concerns about the elk habitat on public lands and protection for grizzly bears in the Helena National Forest.

The challenge in federal court centered on elk habitat and population numbers, claiming that additional logging and road construction in the forest would only continue to negatively affect both elk and grizzly population and contradicted the Forest Service’s own plan, which includes boosting the number of elk that spend summer and fall on the Lincoln Ranger District.

Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said this particular lawsuit was essential to keep public opportunity for elk hunting. He said that from 1986, when the original Helena Forest Plan was adopted, to 2013, the number of elk spending time on private property has greatly increased, and the population has grown. However, because of the activity in the Blackfoot area near Lincoln, the elk population has not increased, limiting the availability of most Montanans who do not have a guide or access to private land.

“The Stonewall logging project would have degraded elk security on public lands rather than improving it,” Garrity said.

The suit also raised the issue of grizzly habitat and warned that the same project would have disrupted habitat for that endangered species as well.

The Stonewall logging project was located approximately four miles northwest of the town of Lincoln and covered just a little more than 24,000 acres, almost all of which were in National Forest Service lands. The plan would have authorized logging on 706 acres and construction or reconstruction of more than 25 miles of roads. It was scheduled to last from five to a maximum of 10 years.

The Dec. 13 ruling by federal judge Donald W. Molloy found that the Forest Service did not adequately consider the impact of more roads and clearing land that could be used for elk cover and habitat.

Garrity said that the disruption in the Helena National Forest, coupled with other logging activities, makes it clear that elk habitat has been disrupted, essentially forcing the animals off public land and onto private lands.

“This would have turned Montana into Texas where only wealthy people with private land could hunt,” Garrity said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.