by Mike Garrity, OPED, Your Turn in Helena Independent Record
Eve Byron’s well-written article in the IR on Oct. 17 about the Forest Service decision to change elk cover standards should have been titled “Forest Service Wants to Destroy Elk Habitat.”
Three days before the general big game hunting season starts, Amber Kamps, the Lincoln District Ranger for the Forest Service, is in charge of a plan to change the standards that ensure we have a world-class elk population within minutes of Helena.
The entire concept is questionable, however, since Montana is now meeting or exceeding elk population goals statewide. So if it’s not broke, what exactly is the Forest Service trying to fix?
It’s worth recalling that this is the same Ranger Kamps who is being sued by local area landowners whose lands were burned after she decided that a hot, windy, August day was the best time to light a prescribed burn — even though a Red Flag Warning was in effect at the time and open burning was banned in Lewis and Clark County.
So a Forest Service Ranger whose judgment is already in question is now telling us the standards protecting hiding cover for elk are too strict and should be weakened so they can protect elk by logging more elk habitat.
This conclusion on Kamps’ part completely ignores the latest scientific studies, which show the limiting factor for healthy big game populations is hiding cover. Logging not only reduces or eliminates that hiding cover, but it inevitably results in the introduction and spread of noxious weeds such as knapweed, which reduces big game forage in the long run.
The purpose of elk hiding cover standards is to ensure that not all of the bull elk are killed during the first week of hunting season. The latest science shows that a high bull-to-cow elk ratio is needed for healthy elk populations and a higher survivability rate for elk calves.
Currently some proposed clearcuts in the Helena National Forest are being limited by the Forest Plan standards for hiding cover. Ranger Kamps’ position is if we can’t meet the requirements of our own rule, let’s change the rule.
For example, in the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area, the Forest Service is trying for the third time to log the north Elkhorns. The last two times, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service’s proposed 750-acre North Elkhorns Timber Sale violated the Forest Service’s own elk habitat standards.
So the Forest Service has renamed the logging proposal in the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area as the Warm Springs Timber Sale which calls for a whopping 2,059 acres of clearcuts. The Forest Service realizes that healthy elk populations and 2,000 acres of clearcuts don’t mix, so they are going to have to change the rules to get the cut out.
Contrary to Forest Service propaganda, our country’s environmental laws aren’t that strict. They don’t prohibit logging on our national forests, but do require that the Forest Service ensure that there will be viable populations of native species — including elk — after logging. But the reality is that clearcuts and even thinning simply do not make good wildlife habitat for elk and other old-growth dependent species.
We are a nation of laws and that means federal agencies, just like citizens, must follow the law. Instead of blaming environmentalists for stopping clearcutting of wildlife management areas, the Forest Service should be explaining why the agency has such a hard time following the laws that ensure Helena continues to be surrounded by beautiful national forests full of native wildlife for generations yet to come.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.