AWR Blog

by Sherry Devlin, The Missoulian

Environmentalists have asked U.S. District Judge Don Molloy to force the Forest Service to make good on its promise to provide more habitat protection for grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountains. In a motion filed with the court this week, Alliance for the Wild Rockies said the government promised in March 2001 to work expeditiously to reduce the density of roads in grizzly habitat on the Lolo, Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle national forests. “We thought we had a deal”, said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Missoula-based environmental alliance. Garrity s group had sued the Forest Service, claiming the management of grizzly bear habitat was inadequate in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.

Rather than go to trial, the Forest Service signed a settlement agreement promising to amend the management plans governing the Lolo, Kootenai and Panhandle forests. Now, Garrity said, “by delaying management changes for nearly two years, the Forest Service is directly threatening the grizzly bear in the Cabinet-Yaak/Selkirk with extinction. On national forest land”, he said, “the most serious problem is roads and the development they encourage.”

Over the past 20 years, 77 percent of the human-caused grizzly bear deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak/Selkirk occurred within 500 meters of an open road, according to the environmental group s legal brief. At last count, 46 grizzly bears inhabit the Selkirks, including Canada, the brief said. Another 30 to 40 grizzlies are in the Cabinet-Yaak. When populations become too small, they can enter into an irreversible decline known as an extinction vortex, the brief warned. Extinction risks for grizzly bears become severe whenever populations are less than 50. In the absence of effective management action, the isolated grizzly bear populations in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk areas face a significantly higher risk of extinction than the Yellowstone or Northern Continental Divide populations.

The Forest Service did release an environmental impact statement on the forest plan amendments in March 2002, but has still not signed a record of decision or finalized the amendments, the environmentalists said. The delay, they added, is unnecessary and unreasonable. “We agree. It has been taking a heck of a long time”, said Greg Kujawa, a public information officer for the Kootenai National Forest. “We have been exercising a good-faith effort to complete this in a timely fashion. The Forest Service began consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required by the Endangered Species Act in May 2002,” he said.

The FWS must write a biological opinion on the merits of the forest plan changes. That document should be ready by the end of November, after being delayed by personnel changes at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “It has taken some time to get the new hire up to speed,” Kujawa said.

However, in its brief, Alliance for the Wild Rockies warned Molloy the Forest Service would try to shift blame to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Don’t let them, the environmentalists said. The Forest Service has caused much of the delay by failing to provide the Fish and Wildlife Service with requested information in an expeditious or timely fashion. In the meantime, Garrity said, the grizzly population continues to dwindle on the brink of irreversible decline.

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