by Martin Kidston
A conservation group filed an injunction in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to block a restoration project and timber sale on the Lolo National Forest, saying the work would adversely impact a variety of species by altering their habitat.
In its lawsuit, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies says the Rennic Stark project, proposed for the Ninemile Ranger District, ignores a number of federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act.
“Logging and prescribed burning will adversely affect old growth-dependent species such as fisher, goshawk and lynx,” said Wild Rockies executive director Mike Garrity. “In this case, the federal government is once again simply ignoring the law.”
As proposed, the Rennic Stark project would allow commercial logging on 1,976 acres and an equal amount of non-commercial thinning.
The work calls for prescribed burning across 5,250 acres, including 2,800 acres within the Stark Mountain Inventoried Roadless area. The project calls for the reconstruction and maintenance of roughly 34 miles of existing roads to facilitate hauling.
“We’ve had biologists on the ground working on this project going on for four years,” said Ninemile District Ranger Chad Benson. “If we were jeopardizing lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout, we wouldn’t be in there.”
Lolo National Forest Supervisor Deborah Austin issued a “finding of no significant impact” in March, saying the Rennic Stark project would reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires once completed. Her findings also suggest that the project likely would not affect Canada lynx and bull trout, and it would have no effect on grizzly bears.
But the wildlife report and biological evaluation for the project notes that work “may affect the viability of old growth-associated species.” The agency’s finding of no significant impact also suggests that grizzly bears, gray wolves, fisher, flammulated owls, goshawks, elk and pileated woodpeckers could be displaced during the work.
Displacement would be temporary, according to the impact findings, and animals would have room to disperse into adjoining landscapes. Habitat would not be rendered unsuitable once the work is completed, the findings say.
“There’s no way they (Alliance for the Wild Rockies) gets as intimate or on the ground as we do in reviewing this project,” said Benson. “You do the best you can and then you get lawsuits from people picking things out of documents. It’s the debacle we’ll always be in. This is an area we’re not going to jeopardize.”
The Ninemile area is part of a larger linkage zone bridging the Mission Mountains and Rattlesnake Wilderness to the north with the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness to the south. It’s used by forest carnivores, including grizzly bears, Canada lynx and the wolverine, among others.
The area also was identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as being core lynx habitat, although it’s not currently listed as critical habitat for the threatened animal. That designation was found invalid by a federal court and a new, revised version of critical habitat has not been released.
Alliance members note in their complaint that the project area may be designated as critical lynx habitat in the near future – a decision the group argues should be considered by forest officials before the project moves forward.
The group also says the project would impact the wolverine, along with pileated woodpeckers and goshawks. The injunction, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, claims the Forest Service has failed to adequately monitor for the species.
“Goshawks are listed as a species of concern because of declining populations,” Garrity said. “It makes no sense to stress them additionally by logging even more of their habitat.”
Benson took issue with the injunction’s focus on logging, saying it represents only a small portion of the Rennic Stark project.
Much of the work would be conducted in zones and restricted to certain times of year to ease any disruption to species known to inhabit the area.
“People hang their hat on the word logging,” said Benson. “It has nothing to do with purpose and need. It’s a tool we use to achieve some of the ecosystem restoration work we need to do. It always tends to be the contention, but it’s the byproduct that has to happen.”