by Brett French
A long-delayed logging project near the west shore of Hebgen Lake has hit another snag.
In an order signed Friday, U.S. District Court judge Brian Morris of Great Falls has instructed the Gallatin National Forest to conduct a “site-specific biological opinion” on how the Lonesome Wood 2 logging project would affect grizzly bears and lynx.
The Lonesome Wood project, located about 12 miles west of West Yellowstone, was first proposed in 2008 but had to be re-analyzed after grizzly bears were re-listed as a threatened species. The area is close to the bears’ core habitat in southwest Montana, the expansive Greater Yellowstone Area.
Revised and submitted to the public for comment in 2011, the project proposed to treat about 2,900 acres near summer residences and campgrounds to increase firefighter and public safety, reduce wildland fire risks to private and forest lands, and re-invigorate aspen stands. Nearly 370 acres of the proposed treatments were within the Lionhead Inventoried Roadless Area. The project also called for the construction of about 5 to 6 miles of temporary road.
The Gallatin National Forest issued a final decision in 2012 and projected the work would take six to nine years.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council appealed the decision, arguing, among other things, that the work would adversely affect grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines.
On Friday, Judge Morris ruled partly in the groups’ favor, saying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not rely entirely on “previously conducted biological opinion” to support its arguments that the project would not harm grizzly bears.
Morris’ ruling requires the biological opinion to “include an analysis of all logging associated activities.”
The judge ruled in the Forest Service’s favor that that the project would not increase road density, that its decision complied with its 2006 travel plan and that the work did not violate the forest plan, as the plaintiffs had charged.
The conservation groups hailed the judge’s ruling as a victory for protection of grizzly bear and lynx habitat.
“If the agencies want to attempt to implement the project in the future, they will first need to prepare formal biological opinions based on the best available science,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a statement. “That will include restrictions to protect the species and ensure that logging does not jeopardize lynx and grizzly bears in the area by destroying and degrading their habitat.”
No one from the Forest Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could be reached for comment on the ruling.