by The Associated Press
HELENA — A judge on Friday blocked a logging project in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and ordered two federal agencies to take another look at the effects on lynx, grizzly bears and elk that may be in the area.
The Fleecer Mountains Project would clear cut and thin more than 3,000 acres within 102,000 acres of the forest in southwestern Montana. The U.S. Forest Service says many of the trees are dying because of pine beetles or drought.
The Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued last year to stop the project, alleging it was a threat to two threatened species — lynx and grizzly bears — and to elk.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen wrote in his ruling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service used a procedural shortcut to conclude lynx habitat would not be harmed by the project.
The federal Endangered Species Act requires the government to ensure no action will harm the existence of any endangered or threatened species, or destroy or harm their habitat. But the procedure was bypassed when the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that threatened lynx did not “occupy” the southwestern Montana forest, even though there is some evidence lynx may be present, Christensen wrote.
As a result, the Forest Service did not conduct a biological assessment on the effects of the logging project on habitat that lynx may pass through.
Christensen ordered the agencies to conduct a new analysis using the proper standard under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service also must conduct a new biological assessment on the project’s effect on threatened grizzly bears after Christensen ruled the original assessment was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The agency also must study the effects on elk of building temporary roads for the project, Christensen said.
The judge ruled in the federal agencies’ favor on other aspects of the lawsuit, but he halted the logging project until the deficiencies are addressed.