Lawsuit challenges logging project that threatens Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies

A clearcut near the OLY project in the Kootenai National Forest. (Photo by Randy Beacham)

Wildlife advocates are suing the US Forest Service to stop another logging project in prime grizzly bear habitat in the Kootenai National Forest.

On Tuesday, wildlife organizations sued the US Forest Service and the Kootenai National Forest in federal court in Missoula over lack of analysis of grizzly bear habitat in the decision to approve the Knotty Pine project north of Troy.

Plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yaak Valley Forest Council, WildEarth Guardians and Native Ecosystems Council.

Approved March 24 by Kootenai Forest Supervisor Chadwick Benson, the 56,000-acre project would harvest more than 5,000 acres over 10 years – including 57 acres of old growth forest and 14 clearcuts over 40 acres, including one exceeding 220 acres – for with the goal of harvesting 29 million board feet of timber.

Nearly 4,800 acres would be burned by aerial ignition using helicopters, and 35 miles of old logging roads would be rebuilt while an additional 2 miles would be new.

Instead of conducting a more in-depth environmental impact study, Kootenai Forest said the project would have “no significant impact”, so it opted to do a less detailed environmental assessment starting in September 2020.

Complainants criticized the lack of precision, especially when it came to assessing grizzly bear survival where the impact could be significant. Because all but 1,200 acres of the project is within prime habitat of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery area, plaintiffs say the Kootenai Forest violated its own management plan. forestry by authorizing such a destructive project. Especially since the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have agreed that the project “is likely to adversely affect grizzly bears.”

The plaintiffs said they would also file a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Roads and clearcutting are among the biggest threats to this extremely fragile population of grizzly bears,” Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Not only have the agencies completely ignored the very real effects of illegal and unauthorized roads on grizzly bears, they have also failed to consider how the opening of over 45 miles of roads into the habitat grizzly bears will further harm this endangered population.”

The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population is dangerously small, with just 45 bears in the 2,600-square-mile recovery area, according to a 2020 estimate. Of those, five ring-necked bears reside in the Knotty Pine project area.

The recovery goal is to have at least 100 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and to have genetic exchange between the Cabinet-Yaak and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem to avoid inbreeding issues. But in recent years the population has slowly declined, affected by poaching and reduced breeding.

In a 2021 species assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that better conservation measures are needed to improve grizzly bear survival in the Cabinet-Yaak.

More roads will not improve the outlook for grizzly bears. The Fish and Wildlife Service has identified roads as the most imminent threat to grizzly bears today because roads allow people to invade deeper into grizzly bear habitat, leading to accidental shooting and defense. of life and poaching. It also pushes bears into other areas that may not be good habitat.

That’s why, in 2011, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service passed the Grizzly Bear Access Management Amendment. The amendment amends the 2015 Kootenai Forest Management Plan to limit motorized access and road density within the Grizzly Bear Recovery Area.

Within the Knotty Pine Project Bear Management Unit, at least 55% of habitat must remain secure while road densities are limited in the rest of the area. Travel on some of the remaining roads should be restricted.

The project includes over 13,000 acres of the Buckhorn Scheduled No-Road Area, which should have helped protect bear habitat. But plaintiffs say Kootenai Forest failed to observe the amendment’s boundaries. Additionally, the Kootenai Forest can keep five additional illegal roads open because logging is done under the Good Neighbor Authority, which gives the state of Montana the power to harvest Forest Service land. .

Even more concerning to renowned author and acting director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, Rick Bass, is the fact that four massive adjacent forestry projects totaling 492 square miles are approved or proposed for the Yaak area.

They include the 35,000 acre OLY project to the south, and to the north and east, the 56,000 acre Buckhorn project, the 95,400 acre Black Ram project and the 72,550 acre North-East Yaak project. The cumulative effect is that wildlife have fewer places to escape when chainsaws, helicopters and trucks roar all around them.

Research shows that in addition to destroying wildlife habitat, bare areas, such as clearcuts or dead whitebark pine forests, have reduced snow and water retention due to a lack of forest cover. This results in worsening drought due to earlier snowmelt and higher than normal runoff that decreases earlier in the summer.

Bass criticized projects like the Black Ram, calling them “a fever dream, a zombie holdover from the previous reign”.

“The Knotty Pine proposal is yet another in a linked series of giant logging projects that would replace cool, wet forests with hot, dry clearcuts. We want to keep our water in the Yaak,” Bass said.

Plaintiffs ask court to find Knotty Pine project illegal because it violates Access Management Amendment and to shut it down altogether or halt until Forest Service issues statement of valid environmental impact.

Contact journalist Laura Lundquist at

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