Groups sue Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife for abandoning many animal protection in Helena forest

Lawsuit says feds ignoring protections for elk, grizzly, lynx, moose, mountain goats, Bighorn sheep and more

By: - August 6, 2022 9:10 am

Part of the Helena National Forest. This is the Iron Mask property near Townsend (Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service).

Four Montana groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service for a decision that they say abandons 10 wildlife standards those agencies have used for the past 30 years to protect grizzly bear, lynx, elk, moose and more animals in the region.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Missoula, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Western Watershed Project, the Sierra Club and Wildearth Guardians are suing the two federal agencies to stop a forest plan they say not only downplays but intentionally disregards any of the animals’ habitat in favor of logging projects.

The 10 standards were developed and designed to preserve big game habitat for animals in the Helena National Forest and connect different parts of land.

Some of those standards include:

  • Adequate cover and hiding in winter and summer for big game species.
  • The minimum cover and size of cover for elk.
  • A requirement that the Forest Service will follow the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging Study Recommendations.
  • A rule that says the Forest Service will map all summer, fall and winter ranges.
  • The service will protect bighorn sheep and mountain goat range during “resource activities.”
  • And that the service will maintain moose habitat to provide “adequate browse species.”

Cover is the amount of protection a species needs to survive or thrive, and mostly consists of trees forming a canopy. It gives cover for animals from predators or hunters, and is necessary for rearing the young of the species. It provides both living space and vegetation.

The lawsuit also raises concern about the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to protect the endangered Canada lynx because of the changes that would allow more logging and less cover, which it argues would impact wild hare populations that are necessary for the cats’ survival.

“The standards thrown out by the Forest Service in its revised plan are crucial to protecting wildlife, and to enabling threatened grizzly bear populations in northern Montana and Yellowstone to connect with each other and reach full recovery,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative with the Sierra Club in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rockies region. “Grizzly bears, Canada lynx, elk and many others will pay a steep price if this decision is allowed to stand.”

Hunters groups are also worried that more logging will remove cover essential for elk hunting and the area will be disturbed by motorized vehicles if the standards are removed.

Road density is also a key factor in disrupting grizzly bear habitat, including leading to more bear mortality.

The revised plan allows forest managers to perform “fuel treatments” which includes logging and more road building.

“We are extremely concerned with the Service’s decision to abandon all the wildlife standards that were in the previous plan and were based on peer-reviewed science,” said Gayle Joslin of the Helena Hunters and Anglers and retired wildlife biologist. “The intent is clearly to preempt the public’s ability to hold the Forest Service accountable for its actions.”

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the story because of the pending lawsuit.

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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.