by Canda Harbaugh, The Western News
Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy halted three Kootenai National Forest logging projects last week after ruling that the U.S. Forest Service failed to properly evaluate how the work would affect endangered grizzly bears.
Molloy ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, on several points, stating last week in his 69-page opinion that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not discussing all pertinent details concerning how the projects would likely impact bears.
“An agency must provide support for its choice of analysis area and must show that it considered the relevant factors,” Molloy’s opinion read. “The Forest Service did not provide any such support for its process here.”
The three timber sale projects, located in the Three Rivers, Libby and Cabinet ranger districts, also aimed to reduce wildfire fuels and improve wildlife habitat. Work was scheduled to start this summer.
“With the projects that are enjoined, we are looking at contacting companies that bought the projects and telling them that we’re going to have to do more work on those projects,” KNF Supervisor Paul Bradford said Friday. “Meanwhile, they can’t start work.”
Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said that the projects are not worth the amount of grizzly bear habitat that would be lost.
“This is a relatively small area and losing that much habitat to road-building and logging activities would definitely displace the bears from thousands of acres,” Garrity said. “The federal government’s own data show the grizzlies need more secure habitat, not less, or this population of bears is going to vanish.”
Molloy ruled that the Forest Service failed to explain why it analyzed the cumulative effects the projects would have on bears on a bear management unit level instead of a forest-wide level. The Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone is divided into bear management units, which are about the size of a female grizzly’s home range.
Molloy also determined that the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act by not explaining how they concluded that helicopter logging within the recovery zone would not adversely affect bears.
“The agency failed to consider all the relevant factors and articulate a reasoned basis for its conclusion that helicopter logging during the active bear year will not adversely impact bears,” Molloy’s opinion read.
In addition, Molloy ruled that the Forest Service erred by authorizing damage to grizzly bear habitat outside the recovery zone without first obtaining an “incidental take statement” from the Fish and Wildlife Service, a document that lists the predicted effects of a project and the measures that would be taken to minimize impact.
The Forest Service argued that the 1995 incidental take statement it used for the recovery zone also applied to activities outside the zone, yet, according to Molloy’s opinion, the agency didn’t want all parameters of the document to apply.
“Defendants agree the 1995 incidental take statement only applies to the recovery zone as to the road density standard,” Molloy said, “yet paradoxically they argue the 1995 incidental take statement permits incidental take outside the recovery zone. They cannot have it both ways.”
The ruling may have wider implications for future work outside the bear recovery zone.
“For us, right now, on the Kootenai, we’re looking at a decision that has impacts outside the recovery zone and that’s pretty much forest wide,” Bradford said.
The National Forest’s counsel is still looking over Molloy’s opinion to determine its next move.
“We’re going to have to take a hard look at the opinion, look at these projects,” Bradford said. “We’re also going to have to look at projects we have in the pipeline to understand what the implications are of the judge’s decision and try to move forward as efficiently and effectively as we can.”
The proposed Grizzly Project, located about 18 miles northeast of Troy in the Three Rivers Ranger District, would have harvested 907 acres of timber. Within the Libby Ranger District, the Miller West Fisher Project would have harvested 2,506 acres and been carried out in two phases to reduce impact on grizzly bears. The proposed Little Beaver project west of Thompson Falls involved about 6,670 acres and was meant to reduce hazardous fuels that could lead to wildfires.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed suit against the Forest Service and Fish and Game last November, and Molloy issued a temporary restraining order on the projects June 9. He released his opinion last week on Tuesday.