A grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (Photo by Frank van Manen / USGS / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 / Unedited)
Last week, U.S. District Court judge Dana Christensen halted a logging project in the Kootenai National Forest because of its potential to harm an already imperiled population of grizzly bears.
The Knotty Pine timber project would have started as soon as next week, but a coalition of environmental groups has worked for several years to stop or modify the project, which they say could devastate the small group of grizzly bears trying to come back in the Cabinet and Yaak mountain ranges.
The project area consists of just more than 56,000 acres in Lincoln County, in the Three Rivers Ranger District. The industrial timber harvest and fuel treatments, which include “pre-commercial” thinning, would total just less than 10,000 acres, including authorization of prescribed burns totaling 7,465 acres.
However, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said that the United States Forest Service has repeatedly downplayed or ignored the heavy machinery and new roads that the project would take, and their impact on the fragile bear population that has stagnated, if not waned slightly.
Christensen cited the bear recovery targets for the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem as part of his rationale for halting the project.
“Several recovery targets have not yet been met, including the number and distribution of female grizzly bears with cubs,” he said.
The biological assessment completed by the U.S. Forest Service acknowledges the bears are a “small population in which survival and reproduction of each individual female grizzly bear is very important.”
The case hinges on the number of roads it would take to access the timber, and also how often roads that should be closed to the public are accessed anyway. The U.S. Forest Service acknowledges that roads and motorized vehicles disturb and drive away the bears. However, it also says it’s unknown how often the roads are used illegally.
“The ongoing chronic problem of ineffective closures and unauthorized motorized access is permanent,” said the court ruling halting the project. “Roads located near choice grizzly bear habitats can drive females with cubs to less favorable habitat, resulting in ‘lower cub survivorship.’”
Christensen said the U.S. Forest Service must determine better means of road management, and also address how the roads affect the bears in its logging project plans.
“The court does not intend to express any view on how the agencies should account for unauthorized motorized access going forward; the court must defer to the agencies’ expertise on that point. However, the agencies must actually exercise that expertise for their decisions to stand,” Christensen said in his ruling. “Claiming a total inability to ascertain, or even estimate, effects of unauthorized use (on the roads) and, by extension, effects of grizzly bears – despite the evidence in the record supplied by both the USFS and third parties does not suffice.”
Christensen left open the door that a compromise could be possible to limit the scope of the project or develop plans to protect the small grizzly population there.
“To the extent the parties can reach agreement regarding allowing particular activities to proceed, or to the extent federal defendants can demonstrate that particular projects should be carved out of the injunction, the court will entertain a motion to modify the scope of the injunction,” he said.
Members of the group challenging the project praised the order.
“Once again, the Forest Service was caught breaking the law because of the ongoing chronic problem of ineffective closures and unauthorized motorized access,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “This is very important since most grizzlies are killed within one-third of a mile from a road and the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population decreased 30% in the last five years.”
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