by Francis Davis of The Montana Standard
The U.S. Forest Service will withdraw its original plans and prepare a new analysis on a 3,400-acre thinning project in the east Pioneer Mountains near Wise River.
Two environmental groups had sued the agency to stop the project.
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Supervisor Dave Myers said his office is withdrawing the Trapper Creek project because the plan overlooked a nearby Bureau of Land Management project in the Upper Big Hole area.
Because of the oversight, the Forest Service did not properly take into account the cumulative effect on wildlife between the two government projects, Myers said.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council contend that the Forest Service’s Trapper Creek Vegetation Management plan would needlessly cut conifers and burn sagebrush. The environmental groups also contend that the plan would harm the sage grouse, which is on target to be on the endangered species list in 2015.
Myers disagrees, and wants the project to proceed after a new environmental analysis is published and a fresh round of public comments conclude.
“Even though there was an oversight in that we overlooked one project 10 miles away, we still think this is a great project,” Myers said. “The actions we are proposing are strong for wildlife, habitat, and vegetation for the long term — including sage grouse. It was designed by our best resource specialists, including wildlife biologists.”
The Forest Service’s initial decision to proceed with the Trapper Creek project came in March 2012, about five months before the BLM project in the Upper Big Hole area received its final approval. That BLM project includes forest thinning in the Jerry Creek, Johnson Creek, Alder Creek, Wise River and Charcoal Gulch areas.
The scoping letter for the BLM project was sent in August 2011. That letter was sent to over 350 individuals, environmental organizations, and local government agencies, including the Forest Service, according to Scott Haight, BLM manager of the Butte field office.
The conservation groups appealed the Trapper Creek project in April 2012, citing the cumulative effect of the BLM project on wildlife, but that appeal was denied by the Forest Service and the project proceeded as planned. The Forest Service cut conifers on 222 acres before the project was stopped when the conservation groups filed suit in district court in December 2012.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said he is pleased that the thinning project has been sidetracked, but is still dubious of the plan, especially the idea that burning sagebrush will ultimately benefit the sage grouse.
“I’d like to see the science that supports that theory,” Garrity said. “Part of what they are supposed to do is manage the forest with the best scientific knowledge.”
Myers said the higher-elevation sagebrush that the Trapper Creek project planned to burn, Big Sagebrush, would regenerate.
“You might be led to believe that if you burn sage brush, it’s bad for the sage grouse, but it’s more complex than that,” Myers said. “You have to know what part of the habitat, how much you are treating — and the sage brush we are treating does rejuvenate itself. That’s important to understand. There are a lot of different species of sagebrush. And what we are burning, this sage brush, it will come back in the next 10, 20, 30 years.”
However, Sarah Johnson, who is the director of Native Ecosystems Council and has a doctorate in wildlife biology from Montana State University, said any loss of sagebrush is significant for the Montana sage grouse.
“Burning sagebrush results in an immediate and long-term loss of this important habitat in the Trapper Creek Project area,” she said in a press release after the Forest Service announced they were withdrawing the project. “New research shows at least 50 percent of the landscape needs to be dense sagebrush for healthy sage grouse populations.”