MISSOULA—In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was withdrawing its decision to give a green light to the White Pine timber sale on the Kootenai National Forest. The Forest Service must now initiate “formal consultation” with FWS pursuant to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act prior to taking any action. This process effectively puts the White Pine project on hold while the agencies fully consider timber project’s impacts to grizzly bears and their habitat.
FWS’s action followed a lawsuit against the agency by the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Citing violations of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the suit challenged FWS’s concurrence with the Forest Service’s finding that the massive White Pine timber sale was “not likely to adversely affect” grizzlies. The Alliance and attorneys for the Department of Justice are now discussing a stipulation to dismiss the lawsuit, to be submitted to Federal District Judge Donald Molloy.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies claimed in its suit that the proposed White Pine timber sale in the Kootenai National Forest would damage occupied grizzly bear habitat and elevate mortality risk to the bears. The White Pine project would lose nearly $3 million dollars, build and re-build more than 70 miles of roads and remove trees from 3,790 acres. The timber project would increase road densities within the project area for seven years to more than 2.2 miles of road per square mile of land area — three times the density allowed by the Kootenai National Forest Plan. The area, located between the Cabinet and Bitterroot Mountains, is key to grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Rockies.
The Alliance is represented in the matter by Dan Rohlf, an attorney with the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center in Portland, Oregon, and Timothy Bechtold, an attorney in Missoula, Montana.
“We’re very happy that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the need to take a close look at the White Pine project’s impacts on grizzly recovery.” said Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director Michael Garrity. “Litigation is always a last resort for conflict resolution. However, we’re committed to ensuring that threatened species like the grizzly bear get the legal protection they need and deserve. If that protection can be ensured without further court action, all the better for everyone.”
The suit noted that the Forest Service acknowledges the area is occupied habitat for grizzly bears, yet the agency approved plans to triple the allowable road density. Roads have been shown by federal, state and independent grizzly bear scientists to be the leading cause in grizzly bear deaths. The sale, as designed, would have removed trees from 3,790 acres within a total project area of 26,440 acres, reducing hiding cover for grizzly bears and greatly reducing the effectiveness of the area for grizzly bears. The sale was a green-tree sale, in that only 61 acres of the total 3,790 to be logged were identified as “sanitation/salvage.” It was one of the largest sale and road building plans of its kind proposed in the Northern Rockies in many years, particularly within occupied grizzly bear habitat.
“The record in this case clearly showed that road building and timber harvest associated with the White Pine project would harm grizzly bears,” said Dan Rohlf. “We are glad that the agencies will now take a very close look at this project with the needs of the bears in mind.”
Despite its own records showing that the area is occupied by grizzly bears, coupled with many studies concluding that high road density harms bears, the Forest Service found that the White Pine project was “not likely to adversely affect” the bears. By agreeing with this erroneous conclusion, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Alliance.
In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that reclassification of the grizzly bear population in the Cabinet-Yaak area from threatened to endangered was warranted, partially due to its extremely low population size, with as few as 20 on the U.S. side of the border, and less than 10 in the Cabinet Mountains.
“We hope that in the future the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service will follow their own regulations and procedures,” said Garrity, a professional economist. “The Forest Service can create more jobs and save taxpayer money by complying with the law and restoring this area rather than by breaking the law and building more roads in this critical grizzly bear habitat. We’ll be watching very closely to make sure they do.”