Michael Garrity, Executive Director, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, (406) 459-5936
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council challenged the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans to log 7,000 acres of lodgepole pine forests on the western border of Yellowstone National Park near Island Park, Idaho. On June 6, Judge Candy Dale, Chief United States Magistrate Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho, ruled in favor of the conservation groups and halted the Split Creek Pre-commercial Thinning Project.
Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said, “In essence, the Court stopped the project because the Forest Service simply changed a map in 2005 to eliminate protective restrictions for lynx on 400,000 acres of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest without following the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The agency then claimed that it wasn’t lynx habitat and authorized tree cutting on 7,000 acres of lodgepole pine located within the Island Park and Madison-Pitchstone Plateaus Subsections of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.”
“The Canada lynx is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and lynx suitable habitat is subject to various restrictions, including a prohibition on pre-commercial thinning of trees,” explained Dr. Sara Johnson Ph.D., a former wildlife biologist for the Targhee National Forest and Director of Native Ecosystems Council. “The 2005 map eliminated lynx protection on a huge swathe of land previously designated as lynx suitable habitat within the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.”
In her Order, Judge Dale’s wrote: “[T]he Court finds that the Forest Service’s failure to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for a decision that ultimately opened approximately 400,000 acres of previously protected land to pre-commercial thinning violated NEPA. Moreover, like a house of cards built on an unsound foundation, because the 2005 map was not analyzed under NEPA, the agency’s analysis under the ESA — which is based upon the validity of the 2005 map — cannot withstand judicial review.”
Judge Dale wrote: “The 2005 map removed eight Lynx Analysis Units (LAUs) from the 2001 map. It eliminated almost 400,000 acres of land that was previously subject to greater environmental restrictions under the Lynx Management Direction. It opened nearly 400,000 acres of land to pre-commercial thinning projects — projects that would be prohibited under the earlier map and the restrictions applicable to LAUs. Although the 2005 map was subjected to public comment prior to the approval of the Project, the map was never subjected to independent NEPA review, which would have required an analysis of the potential affects the removal of the LAUs would have on the lynx, its habitat, and the habitat of snowshoe hare. Such analysis is absent in this case. The absence of such analysis violates NEPA’s procedural requirements…”
Judge Dale continued: “[t]he Court agrees with Plaintiffs that the failure to analyze the 2005 map under NEPA undermines the Forest Service’s decision under the ESA. And, although the Court does not reach Plaintiffs’ claims under NFMA, the danger that the Project does not comply with the Forest Plan is a real one.”
The Forest Service also failed to evaluate “whether the … elimination of 390,000 acres of land within the boundaries of LAUs in the 2005 map would adversely affect the lynx or its habitat,” wrote Judge Dale. “The failure to assess whether the adoption of the 2005 map would jeopardize the lynx or its habitat violated the ESA.”
“There can be no dispute that the Project itself is altering the physical landscape by removing tress on land that was previously subject to restrictions for the benefit of a protected species under the ESA,” Judge Dale concluded. “In the absence of a valid FONSI and biological assessment, the Court fails to grasp how the Project can continue.”
The Canada lynx is comparable to the bobcat in size and particularly distinguished by its long legs and large paws, which make it well-adapted to hunting in deep snow. It is highly dependent on snow-covered areas due to its specialized predator-prey relationship with the snowshoe hare — a species which, like the lynx, evolved to survive in areas that receive deep snow.
“The Split Creek proposal authorizes extensive pre-commercial thinning in occupied lynx habitat and in snowshoe hare habitat,” concluded Dr. Johnson. “The logging would have driven out snowshoe hare, which are the primary prey of lynx and the Forest Service’s own studies show that lynx avoid forests that have been thinned. The Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are required by the Endangered Species Act to try and recover lynx populations, but logging 7,000 acres of critical lynx habitat does just the opposite.”