by Matt Volz, Associated Press
HELENA – A U.S. Forest Service plan to spray herbicide from helicopters over the Kootenai National Forest does not adequately protect dozens of grizzly bears and could drive them from their habitat, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy concluded the federal agency can’t conduct any aerial spraying in the 2.2-million acre forest in Montana’s northwestern corner until it addresses in its plan how often the flights would be allowed and what the effect would be on the endangered bears.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Helena-based environmental group, sued the Forest Service over the plan, saying multiple fly-overs would cause the bears to flee and permanently abandon any habitat that is subject to weed spraying.
“When the low-flying helicopters fly over grizzly habit, the grizzlies leave,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the group. “They can’t just fly helicopters over endangered species habitat without looking at the effects on the endangered species.”
Molloy, affirming a magistrate judge’s earlier recommendations, sent the plan back to the Forest Service, saying the agency’s conclusion that low-altitude, high-frequency flights are not likely to adversely affect the grizzly bear was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Other aspects of the plan, including ground application of the herbicides, can go forward, Molloy said in the March 30 ruling.
The environmental group also claimed in the lawsuit that the chemical used in the herbicide could be harmful to animals and to people living in the Libby area, but the judge ruled for the Forest Service in those claims.
Forest Service offices in Missoula and Libby did not return calls for comment.
The Kootenai forest has seen an increase in invasive plant species, particularly noxious weeds, that threatens the health of the forest’s native ecosystems, the agency has said in its justification for the program.
The plan would allow ground spraying of herbicides on up to 45,000 acres of forest and aerial spraying on up to 35,000 acres but not all at once. Up to 6,000 acres would be treated each year for 15 years – 4,000 acres by ground and 2,000 by air.
The agency also said aerial spraying would only be used if a widespread weed infestation is discovered, and there were no immediate plans to begin.
The Forest Service set limits on the program in consideration of the approximately 35 grizzly bears living in the region, including holding aerial spraying to two days per year per management unit and leaving undisturbed areas next to those being sprayed during air operations in grizzly habitat.
Those limitations would result in bears only avoiding a treated area for one or two days, the Forest Service concluded.
But the plan authorizes multiple fly-overs without putting a limit on the number of times per day, Magistrate Jeremiah Lynch said in the December recommendations that were affirmed by Molloy in this latest ruling.
If there were multiple helicopter flights in one day, “there is no telling how many times that bear would be temporarily displaced, and the potential adverse effects of multiple displacements,” Lynch wrote.
Garrity said Wednesday he was pleased with the ruling to halt aerial spraying, but he believes the judge should have gone further in examining the chemicals being used to kill the weeds.
“We contended (the Forest Service) didn’t look at the effects of spraying on people enough. Not only people, but plants and animals,” he said.