Groups sue Forest Service, saying Black Ram logging project will hurt grizzly bear population

By: - January 10, 2023 11:41 am

A female grizzly with two cubs (Photo by Glenn Phillips via www.glennphillipsphoto.com. | Used with permission).

A new lawsuit filed by two environmental groups challenges the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to begin the Black Ram logging project in the Kootenai National Forest, which the groups said will likely hasten the decline of the already imperiled grizzly bear population in the Cabinet and Yaak Mountain ranges.

The groups, Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the Forest Service has relied on outdated information, possibly because the service knows the grizzly bear population is declining. Furthermore, the opponents of the plan say the logging project would cause more disruption to grizzly habitat, and that the Forest Service can’t manage the roads it already has in the area.

The project is located in Lincoln County and borders Canada. It’s about 20 miles north of Troy and includes more than 95,000 acres of national forest land. The Black Ram project includes 2,442 acres of clear-cut or “regeneration” logging, 1,460 acres of recreational logging, including 579 acres of logging old-growth forest.

It also includes nearly 100 miles of road construction or reconstruction, which the lawsuit alleges is the most disruptive to the grizzly bear population.

The United States Forest Service has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, so it had no response to the suit filed Friday.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, said the United States Fish and Wildlife Service counts 42 individual bears, a significant decline from 50 bears known in 2018. And as part of the lawsuit, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council said that Forest Service is relying on outdated numbers in order to justify pushing ahead with the Black Ram Project.

“The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is failing every recovery target and goal: It is failing the target for females with cubs, it is failing the target for distribution of females with cubs; it is failing the female mortality limit (which is 0 mortalities until a minimum of 100 bears is reached), and it is failing the mortality limits for all bears (also 0 mortalities until a minimum of 100 bears is reached),” the suit said.

The two groups also cited research by the United States Wildlife Service that said the biggest threat to grizzly habitat are roads because the bears avoid them, but in doing so, can become isolated or vulnerable.

“Roads pose a threat to grizzly bears because roads provide humans with access into grizzly bear habitat, which leads to direct mortality from accidental shootings and intentional poachings,” the suit said. “Human access also leads to indirect bear mortality by creating circumstances in which bears become habituated to human food and are later killed by wildlife managers. (They) also result in indirect mortality by displacing grizzly bears from good habitat into areas that provide sub-optimal habitat.”

The lawsuit also contends that managers of the Kootenai National Forest have mismanaged the bears’ habitat by not properly closing road access or allowing the public to build trails or paths around gates. In addition to that, it said that all problems that were previously documented with roads into the area in 2021 went unaddressed in 2022.

For example, surveys conducted in October 2021 show 15 ineffective berms, 17 ineffective gates and 13 roads with no gate or berms. In all, the two groups document 45 different instances of ineffective or no road closures leading into the area, while many of them still have not been addressed. In total, the lawsuit alleges that the Black Ram Project Area has a 22 percent failure rate for barriers and gates.

Because of the data it has relied upon, Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies have asked federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy to halt the project because the Forest Service’s approval of the plan, which was scheduled to begin in 2022, violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

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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.

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