by The Associated Press
HELENA — An appeals court has temporarily blocked a Kootenai National Forest logging project under review for its possible effects on a small, threatened grizzly bear population.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday issued a two-week injunction against the Grizzly Project, which calls for logging more than 900 acres and thinning or burning 2,140 acres in the northwestern Montana forest.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies had requested the emergency injunction because a federal judge had not yet responded to a previous request to delay the project until the conservation group’s lawsuit is resolved.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in August ruled the U.S. Forest Service’s and Fish and Wildlife Service’s analysis of the Grizzly Project was sufficient and the project could move ahead.
The alliance has appealed Molloy’s ruling to the 9th Circuit and asked Molloy to block the project until the appeal is heard.
The 9th Circuit’s two-week injunction will halt any work on building roads or logging while Molloy considers the request.
Commercial logging and road-building could harm the threatened Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population that lives in the forest, attorneys for the conservation group said in court filings.
There are about 40 of the bears, whose target population for recovery is 100, and their numbers are declining, alliance executive director Mike Garrity said.
The bears’ population is less than half what federal wildlife officials say is needed to ensure a genetically-stable population, Garrity said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cabinet-Yaak population is “in danger of extinction” due in large part to the cumulative impacts of timber harvest and its associated road construction.
The logging project is meant to improve the forest’s health and the bears’ habitat through road closures and vegetation treatments that include commercial timber harvests, attorneys for the U.S. Forest Service said in court filings opposing the injunction.
A contractor began road maintenance and reconstruction in the project area after Molloy’s ruling in August, but that work was halted during the federal government shutdown.
The work resumed on Oct. 17, but the 9th Circuit’s order has halted it again.
The Forest Service estimated the road work will take about two to three weeks to complete and the first timber harvest will take place in mid-December, if the project is allowed to proceed.