by Karl Puckett, Tribune Staff Writer
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit Wednesday to block a forest logging/prescribed fire project in the Little Belt Mountains, alleging the U.S. Forest Service failed to properly survey the area for the presence of elusive lynx, listed as threatened, and other old-growth species.
“Lynx are hard to find,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “They are secretive animals.”
In the Blankenship Vegetation Treatment Project, about 1,100 acres would be treated with fire or logged east of Monarch in Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The Forest Service says the fuels reduction work would improve the health of the old forest and make the area safer for the public and firefighters in the event of a wildfire.
The area is located off of U.S. Highway 89 in the wild land-urban interface, and cabins and homes dot the forest, which also is a popular camping destination.
“First, this case is about the Forest Service’s failure to use ‘best available science’ and properly survey for Canada lynx and report those survey results, and the agencies’ use of improper and inadequate survey results in the finding of ‘no adverse effects’ for lynx, in violation of the National Forest Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act,” the lawsuit says.
Dave Cunningham, a spokesman for Lewis and Clark National Forest, said the forest has received widespread support for the Blankenship fuels treatment project. The project had been scheduled to be implemented this spring.
“At this point in the process, when a suit is filed, we need to stand down for a moment, study the complaint that has been filed, confer with our Office of General Council attorneys, and then based on their advice, take the next appropriate steps,” Cunningham said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls against the U.S. Forest Service, Faye Krueger, regional forester for the agency’s Region 1 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Canada lynx, known for their distinctive facial ruff on each side of the snout, large round feet and black-tipped tails, are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The estimated population in Montana is 300, Garrity said.
The Forest Service issued a biological assessment in July concluding the project wasn’t likely to adversely impact lynx, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife concurred.
The Fish and Wildlife Service administers the Endangered Species Act.
If a listed or candidate species may be present, agencies must prepare a biological assessment to determine projects would harm them.
It is possible lynx move through the area, but the habitat isn’t considered occupied, according to the Forest Service, but the lawsuit disputes the methods used to reach that conclusion.
“Even the Forest Service previously determined that at least part of the forest is considered ‘occupied’ by lynx,” Garrity said. “So, from the best available present and past data, there is ample evidence to suggest that lynx may be present in the Little Belts and the Blankenship area.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks trapping records show 268 lynx were trapped in northcentral Montana, which includes the Little Belt Mountains, between 1959 and 1967, Garrity said.
The project was first proposed in 2000 but has never been implemented because of legal challenges and administrative appeals.
The most recent lawsuit also says wolverine and Northern Goshawk might be in the area.
Wolverine are a candidate for federal protections. Northern Goshawk are listed as species of concern by the state of Montana. They are not federally protected.
The Forest Service should have prepared a biological assessment to determine the impact on wolverine, the lawsuit says.
The timber sale could also harm thermal cover for mule deer, according to the lawsuit, which asks the court to set aside the decision approving the project.