Federal judge tells Forest Service that Red Lodge logging project still doesn’t pass muster

U.S. Forest Service halted again because plan disregarded threatened Canada lynx

By: - August 29, 2023 6:06 pm

Canada Lynx or Lynx canadensis, (Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by ucumari).

A federal judge has stopped a large logging project near Red Lodge because the United States Forest Service ignored that new maps it used to help determine the scope of the timber plan potentially cut out thousands of acres of the threatened Canada lynx habitat.

The project would span more than 21,000 acres in the Beartooth Ranger District of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service’s own documents say it needs to reduce hazardous fuels, improve forest vegetation and improve water quality. However, it also encompasses areas in the Rock Creek and Rosebud lynx zones.

It’s not the first time the forest service has planned for such a thinning project. The federal agency has been in and out of federal court several times since 2015, as federal judges have faulted it for not consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properly, which is required by law to ensure that threatened or endangered species are protected.

Federal Judge Dana Christensen said that because the U.S. Forest Service adopted its new logging project with new maps and databases, that should have triggered more consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department because the new technology eliminated much of the area as lynx habitat – something that is not permissible without a more robust analysis and public engagement process.

“(The new mapping company’s) methodology produced a revised lynx habitat map that reduced lynx habitat in the Custer portion of the Custer Gallatin National Forest by 88,000 acres and increased lynx habitat on the Gallatin portion by 69,000 acres as compared to the original maps for these forests,” Christensen wrote. “The map resulted in a net reduction of 19,000 acres of lynx habitat.”

Because the agency adopted the maps in 2016, but did not properly incorporate them, including a review under the National Environmental Policy Act, the court ruled that the plan short-circuited the normal review process.

“The forest service could continually revise its lynx habitat maps from project to project, removing or adding lynx habitat with each revisions without subjecting those changes” to the review requirements outlined by Congress, Christensen said in his 38-page ruling.

Christensen stopped the project and sent it back to the Forest Service to remedy the errors it found in the proposal. In his ruling, the judge specifically set aside the environmental impact statement along with the record-of-decision.

If the Forest Service chooses not to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals, it would essentially restart the project, beginning with an environmental impact statement. That would begin a new set of reviews, including new public commenting period and record of decision.

“The Forest Service wanted to sacrifice lynx, grizzly bear and elk habitat to subsidize the timber industry at a cost of $588,000 federal taxpayer dollars,” said Mike Garrity, the executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of two groups that challenged the plan in federal court. “We tried to work with the Forest Service on this, but the agency stubbornly refused to acknowledge the best available science or the law and instead arbitrarily side-stepped the public, changed definitions, and tried to remap federally-designated lynx habitat to get around legally mandated habitat protection.”

The other group to challenge this is the Native Ecosystems Council.

The U.S. Forest Service has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

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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.