by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
Seeking to preserve lynx habitat, a Montana environmental group has sued to stop a 1,100-acre National Forest logging project in the Little Belt Mountains.
On Wednesday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit to stop the Blankenship Vegetation Treatment Project north of White Sulfur Springs on the grounds that it violates several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Lewis and Clark National Forest project would allow logging and prescribed burns on about 2 square miles and build 4.3 miles of temporary roads and rebuild 2.3 miles of old roads around inventoried roadless areas of the Little Belt Mountains.
The lawsuit said the project violates the Endangered Species Act, which requires federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to protect not only species but also their habitat.
The lynx was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. Shortly after, the Forest Service created an amendment addressing lynx to go with each of its forest plans, but the USFWS hadn’t yet identified all the areas of the West that qualify as critical lynx habitat.
Forest plans are sets of management priorities created to last for one to two decades.
In 2009, the USFWS finalized its designation of critical habitat, but the Forest Service hasn’t yet updated its lynx amendments to incorporate the areas of habitat.
Last May, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen in Missoula sided with the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and ruled that the U.S. Forest Service must re-evaluate the 20 different forest plans that deal with lynx habitat.
However, he stopped at a blanket stoppage of the planned National Forest projects, saying each injunction must include details about the threats to a species so judges know which specific activities to suspend.
So that’s why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed this injunction.
The Forest Service claims no lynx inhabit the Little Belt Mountains, but Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies spokesman, said the area is still prime lynx habitat, as evidenced by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks data.
That data, based upon trapping records from 1959 through 1967, show that 268 lynx were trapped in an area that includes the Little Belt Mountains.
It’s now illegal to trap lynx so little current information is available. But a lack of data doesn’t mean a lack of lynx, Garrity said.
Lynx are difficult to find, and biologists usually have to depend on hair traps or other techniques that depend a little on luck for results.
The mountains could also harbor goshawk and wolverine.
The wolverine is under consideration for Endangered Species Act protection, but the USFWS delayed the decision scheduled for a few weeks ago after biologists questioned some of the scientific assumptions related to snowpack. If listing goes through, it would bolster the Alliance for the Wild Rockies argument.
“Although the federal government is under a court order to examine occupied lynx habitat in the Little Belt Mountains to see if it qualifies as lynx critical habitat, the Lewis and Clark National Forest proposed yet more logging in this area, which is simply not the way to recover this endangered species,” Garrity said.