from staff and wire reports
MISSOULA — Conservationists are accusing the Forest Service of dragging its feet on a legal promise to start removing forest roads to help save endangered grizzly bears in the Idaho Panhandle and northwestern Montana.
“We thought we had a deal, but the Forest Service has delayed for almost two years,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
“By failing to reduce the massive network of roads, the Forest Service is directly threatening the grizzly bear in the Cabinet-Yaak/Selkirk with extinction.”
Grizzly bear numbers are undisputedly low in the area. In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the numbers were so low they warranted listing the grizzlies as endangered, though they’re still officially listed as a threatened species.
The lawsuit filed this week in Missoula by the alliance says the Forest Service agreed in a 2001 court settlement to amend forest plans for the Idaho Panhandle, Kootenai and Lolo national forests to address the road issue. Though the service has completed required environmental impact studies, it still has not finalized the forest plan amendments.
Forest officials said they’re trying.
“Over the last 10 years we have removed more roads than we’ve built, easily,” said Dave O’Brien, spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. “We definitely have some different things in progress right now that will address these issues.”
Greg Kujawa, spokesman for the Kootenai National Forest, said, “Our intent is to fully comply with that agreement. … It’s just taking a lot longer than we intended.”
One major setback was the transfer of a biologist who was intimately involved in the process, Kujawa said.
“We’ve held numerous meeting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and we’ve provided them with a lot of data in a timely manner, whenever it was requested,” he said. “These issues are highly complex, and both agencies want to make the best decisions possible with the most current information possible.”
The amendments are being developed together for all three of the forests.
Garrity said the Bush administration appears to be resisting the changes because they could interfere with timber harvesting.
“We think they’re just essentially stalling,” he said. “There’s a big push from the current administration to get the cut out, at a huge cost for taxpayers because it’s a subsidized program, and to the environment, which in this case is grizzly bears.”
Wayne Wakkinen, senior wildlife research biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department in Bonners Ferry, said preliminary figures that are now being finalized suggest the grizzly population in the Selkirks is actually growing, though very slowly. Data is sketchy, however, because of the small numbers involved, he noted.
“That point estimate of slowly increasing population is kind of bolstered by an increase in sightings over the years, and increasing range as well,” Wakkinen said.
For example, grizzlies are now being spotted in the Pack River drainage just a few miles north of Sandpoint, where no grizzlies were seen 10 to 15 years ago. There also have been numerous sightings near the McArthur Lake Wildlife Management Area, and two bears were spotted and one trapped last spring near Naples.
However, Wakkinen estimates there are only about 60 grizzlies in the Selkirk ecosystem, which stretches into British Columbia. That’s up from about 30 two decades ago, when the bears first were listed as threatened.
In its lawsuit, the alliance noted that most of the grizzlies killed by humans die within 500 meters of a road. The group also pointed to research, conducted in part by Wakkinen, which showed that grizzlies in the area survive best at or below certain road densities.
Wakkinen said that from his observations, management of roads in the region has improved in the past decade. Before that, some roads typically were closed and then reopened, creating “kind of this revolving gate policy.” That didn’t coax grizzlies back into areas.
But in the past 10 years, he said, “It’s been a fairly stable situation out there as far as road densities and road closures.”
The alliance contends that much more needs to be done to eliminate roads, to make the habitat usable again for the grizzlies. Garrity, an economist, said, “That would put a lot of people to work. If they have to close and obliterate some of these roads, it takes people to do that. So they could employ a lot of people protecting grizzly bear habitat.”
The alliance isn’t convinced that the number of grizzlies in the area is increasing, Garrity said. “We’re just using the data the government collects. We contend their own numbers show that the population is declining.”
Wakkinen acknowledged that a substantial number of grizzlies have been killed in recent years.
“Partly we’re a victim of our own success, to a degree. With an expanding population, you have bears getting into areas where they haven’t before, and those areas now have people,” he said.
In the past, most bear kills occurred in the back-country, where hunters mistook grizzlies for other prey or poachers intentionally shot them. Now, there are more accidental run-ins with humans in populated areas, Wakkinen said.
A full-time conservation officer added as part of grizzly bear recovery efforts has helped educate hunters and others in the area about how to identify grizzlies, and how to tell them apart from the more common black bears, he said.
It’s difficult to tell just how many grizzlies are out there, he said. Wakkinen’s latest growth estimate is based on data from radio-collared bears.
“If it was 30 and now it’s 60, we’re going in the right direction,” he said. But, he said, “We’re still below recovery levels.”
The government now will have a chance to respond to the alliance’s court filing, before a federal district judge in Montana rules on the issue.
“We’re asking the judge to order them to do what they said,” Garrity said.
Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.