by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
A timber sale along Hebgen Lake is on hold until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analyzes possible threats to grizzly bears and Canadian lynx.
Last Friday, Great Falls District Court Judge Brian Morris agreed with two environmental groups that the USFWS had not looked deeply enough at how logging operations in the Lonesome Wood II project might jeopardize the two endangered species.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council sued in March 2013 to stop the logging of 1,750 acres, including almost 500 acres or old-growth forest, with an additional 825 acres of potential logging.
“The logging project would have built miles of new logging roads and logged hundreds of acres of National Forest, including 500 acres of old growth forest,” said AWR executive director Mike Garrity. “Roads pose serious threats to grizzly bear survival and logging old growth essentially destroys lynx habitat, which is why the federal court stopped the logging project.”
After the U.S. Forest Service concluded in a biological assessment that the project would likely adversely affect both species, the law required that the USFWS prepare its own biological opinion.
But the USFWS issued no opinion before the project went forward.
The USFWS attorney told Morris that the agency didn’t need to write an opinion because the conclusions wouldn’t differ from those already outlined in the 2006 opinion for the Gallatin Forest Travel Plan and the 2007 Lynx opinion, according to court records.
While the USFWS can fall back on previous opinions, they can only do so in certain circumstances, based upon Morris’ review of several cases.
Forest travel plans consider only how roads and road density would affect grizzly bears.
The USFWS claimed the Forest Plan analysis was sufficient because only the roads of the Lonesome Wood project would present a problem for the bears. But Morris said the law requires that the agency look at the whole project.
Because the USFWS didn’t write an opinion on the logging portion of the project, Morris said the agency had to do a more site-specific analysis to see how the cumulative effects of both the roads and the logging might come into play.
Previously, the Forest Service concluded that workers’ use of developed campsites and food storage issues during the project could also cause problems for bears.
The lynx argument was slightly different.
The 2007 Biological Opinion establishes vegetation requirements for lynx but allows for exceptions or exemptions. If a project must use the exceptions, the USFWS is required to do a site-specific analysis under the 2007 opinion.
The Lonesome Wood II project would not move forward without lynx vegetation exemptions.
“FWS stated that the site-specific consultation would provide FWS ‘a means to assess the validity of our assumptions,'” Morris wrote. “FWS has offered no explanation for why it failed to comply with the terms of its own biological opinion.”
On three other counts, Morris sided with the USFWS.
He ruled the agency did not violate an Incidental Take clause by increasing road density slightly above 1998 estimates for the area, which have no exact scientific correlation to grizzly survival.
The environmental groups claimed the Forest Service has delayed its adoption of access standards in the Forest Plan, which outline standards for road density in the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.
While Morris said the Forest Service hadn’t violated its regulations, he emphasized that “the Forest Service cannot delay indefinitely the adoption of these currently available access standards.”
Morris also ruled that the agency had no obligation to consider wolverine habitat since the USFWS recently decided against listing the wolverine as threatened. In addition, the Forest Service assessment had concluded the project would not adversely affect wolverines, unlike lynx or grizzly bears.