by Chronicle Staff
Two environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service and Regional Forester Faye Krueger last week to stop a 3,400-acre thinning project in the east Pioneer Mountains north of Dillon.
In a March decision, Krueger said the Trapper Project would use logging and burning to stop conifers from growing into stream, shrubland and grassland areas, which should allow more aspen to grow.
Krueger said the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Revised Forest Plan, published in 2009, allows for such projects.
In their lawsuit filed Tuesday, attorneys for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council said burning operations would also damage sagebrush that support sage grouse.
Neither the forest plan nor the environmental assessment considers preserving sagebrush for species such as sage grouse, which is an inexcusable oversight, according to the lawsuit.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest lists one sage grouse lek, or mating area, near the project: the Louie Lowe Basin lek.
The lawsuit states that cattle grazing is mostly responsible for eliminating aspen and doesn’t help the sagebrush either.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that sage grouse need endangered species protection. Sage grouse should be listed by 2015.
Studies by scientists such as biologist Scott Mills of the University of Montana show that sagebrush habitat is vanishing rapidly and sage grouse along with it. In states such as Idaho and Utah, sagebrush of the high desert has been ravaged by larger and more frequent wildfires, and oil and gas fields threaten habitat in Wyoming and eastern Montana.
AWR wants the Missoula federal court to suspend the project until a ruling is made. AWR spokesman Mike Garrity said his group has already submitted public comment and appealed the decision to the Forest Service.
“Often, it doesn’t go past the administrative appeal stage after we point things out to them,” Garrity said. “Even if prescribed burning would stimulate aspen sprouting, livestock grazing will continue to limit aspen growth.”