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Associated Press

MISSOULA (AP) – Seven environmental groups filed an administrative appeal Monday, saying a Forest Service plan doesn’t close enough roads to help protect grizzly bears in the Lolo, Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle national forests.

Grizzly bear populations in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems number only about 30 or 40 animals, so few that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999 said they warranted listing as an endangered species. But other species were a higher priority, so the bears remained listed as “threatened,” as are all grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.

“The problem here is that these populations are endangered,” said Mike Bader, a consultant with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “But the Forest Service is talking about closing just 70 miles of roads over nine years. That’s just not addressing the problem.” In the appeal filed with Regional Forester Gail Kimbell, the environmental groups said the agency failed to take appropriate action to reduce the network of more than 20,000 miles of backcountry roads on the three forests. Biologists have found that more than 77 percent of human-caused bear deaths in the area occurred within one-third mile of a road, Bader said.

Forest Service officials could not be reached to comment on the appeal late Monday.

Earlier this year, the three western Montana forests amended their management plans to better address the issue of road densities in grizzly bear habitat. At the time, Kootenai Forest Supervisor Bob Castaneda said the amendments were “the closest to a win-win situation for the bear population, public access and resource management and protection.” The amendments would reduce the mileage of open roads on the three forests from 3,082 to 3,010. Another 353-498 miles of “not drivable” roads would be reclaimed.

The remaining forest roads would stay open, and any further closures would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

If the Forest Service does not respond to the appeal with tougher, pro-bear plans, the environmentalists will take their complaint to court, said attorney Marc Fink with the Western Environmental Law Center. Joining the Alliance in the appeal were The Lands Council, Cabinet Resource Group, Great Bear Foundation, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Idaho Conservation League.

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