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Group sues to stop clearcutting in Cabinet Mountain grizzly habitat

GRIZZLY BEAR (file photo)
Posted at 8:29 AM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 10:29:37-04

MISSOULA — After a judge recently ruled the Flathead National Forest didn’t properly consider how logging roads affect grizzly bears, an environmental group is challenging another large logging project on the Kootenai National Forest.

On Tuesday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit in Missoula federal district court against the U.S. Forest Service and Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson to stop the Ripley Project southeast of Libby and south of the Kootenai River.

“It’s astounding the Forest Service would even consider such a massive logging and road construction project in an area just 2 miles from the official Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Recovery Zone, and less than 1 mile from the Cabinet Face Bears Outside Recovery Zone area,” said Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director Mike Garrity in a release.

Approved in May, the Ripley Project would commercially log almost 17 square miles, 30% of which would be clearcuts, near the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone. To move the logs, the Forest Service would build 13 miles of permanent road and 6 miles of temporary road and maintain 93 miles of existing road over the course of 25 years. The Forest Service estimates the project would require $643,000 in taxpayer dollars in spite of the timber sales.

Since 1988 when a small group of bears was found, the grizzly bear population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem continues to do poorly compared to those in the Yellowstone or Northern Continental Divide. According to a 2019 report, 25 bears were detected in the Cabinet Mountains where poaching is a concern. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has tried to augment the population in the Cabinet-Yaak with about 20 bears since 2005, but two were illegally shot and a train hit another. The Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan requires a minimum of 100 bears for a viable population.

A 2015 U.S. Geological Survey study determined that the Cabinet-Yaak area is too small to provide enough home range for a healthy population of grizzly bears and the lands immediately surrounding the area have such high road densities that grizzly bears are at risk. The study also found the Cabinet population was “highly inbred” because the population is so small and isolated, and concluded that “increased connectivity and gene flow with other populations” was needed.

These facts prompted the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 to upgrade the Cabinet-Yaak population to “endangered,” not just threatened.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies argues the Ripley project area should be less exploited because it provides essential habitat and migration routes for grizzly bears traveling between the Northern Continental Divide and the Cabinet Mountains.

At least three radio-collared grizzlies have been recorded in the project area in the past 5 to 7 years. Two males use the area in the spring and fall to travel between the Cabinet Mountains and the Fisher River, and one male uses part of the project area along lower Libby Creek as his home range.

In 2018, Missoula federal court judge Dana Christensen ruled individual grizzly populations – the Yellowstone population specifically – couldn’t be delisted alone without considering the effect on the other populations. He found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to provide for connectivity between populations to ensure genetic health and sent the agency back to work on that.

Although the agency didn’t change the bears’ threatened status in the Cabinet-Yaak, a five-year status review published in March concluded road densities on the national forests around the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem were too high to protect the bear. It’s been shown that the more motorized access via more roads, the greater the odds of human-grizzly conflict, and it’s mainly the bears that lose. The review concluded the entire population of grizzly bears in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming remains threatened due to a lack of connectivity, motorized access, human-caused mortality and uncertain conservation efforts in some ecosystems.

Part of that is due to the fact that the U.S. Forest Service had pushed through several large logging projects in grizzly bear habitat, some without full public involvement. The Kootenai National Forest is considering three other large logging projects – Purple Marten, Black Ram and Pinkham Meadow – all of which had to be analyzed for their effect on grizzly bears.

“When the Forest Service breaks the law, we will hold it accountable. This is exactly what we are doing by filing a lawsuit against the Ripley Project to protect our incalculably valuable endangered species and public lands for present and future generations,” Garitty said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.