MISSOULA — Environmental groups are suing the Flathead National Forest, saying its new forest management plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the iconic threatened species that depend on vast swaths of natural habitat.
WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan sued the Flathead National Forest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week over what they call an insufficient environmental analysis that led to a less-protective forest management plan approved in February 2019.
They’re asking the court to require the Flathead National Forest to reinstate the previous plan, published in 1986 until the managers correct all the flaws in the analysis, which the lawsuit says are many. Basically, the Flathead National Forest “arbitrarily omitted and truncated consideration of key impacts, overlooked the best available science, relied on unfounded assumptions, authorized take of protecting species without adequate safeguards and ignored requirements for controlling impacts of motorized vehicles.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit blames the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing a flawed biological opinion in 2017 that said the new plan wouldn’t jeopardize grizzly bears, bull trout or Canada lynx or their habitat.
A 1995 amendment to the 1986 forest plan – Amendment 19 – would have required the national forest to abandon several roads because roads produce sediment that pollutes the clear waters that bull trout need and they lead to more grizzly bear deaths by giving people more access to the backcountry. Research has shown the greater the road density in an area, the greater the risk to bears.
These are facts often cited by the USFWS. But the new plan eliminated that requirement and the USFWS didn’t object in its opinion.
The lawsuit goes on to say the Flathead National Forest is just as culpable for accepting the USFWS biological opinion and not doing more analysis.
“The old Forest Plan had strict limits on how many logging roads and culverts could exist in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat and a program for removing a lot of them,” said Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer. “The revised Forest Plan has no limits and the Flathead National Forest is now busy building more roads with more culverts. It’s a disaster in the making.”
The national forest said that instead of eliminating the number of roads required by Amendment 19, it would eliminate enough to maintain the road density that existed in 2011.
That leaves more than 500 miles of road that had been planned for abandonment, according to the lawsuit, and motorized vehicles make use of that. In 2004, the Swan View Coalition inspected 256 road gates or barriers and found evidence that motorized vehicles had breached more than half.
Also, the new forest plan has no related requirement to limit new road construction. All of this threatens to increase the number of grizzly bear deaths, but it also limits bear movement. So fewer bears may migrate out to other populations, such as the Yellowstone population.
Such connectivity between areas is necessary to keep all the populations from becoming inbred. Inbreeding leads to lower survival and the populations could decline.
That’s why the courts have required the USFWS to ensure connectivity can be established between populations before trying to delist the Yellowstone grizzly population.
“The Flathead National Forest plays an essential role in the long-term recovery of grizzly bears and other imperiled species,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “In its recent decision overturning the de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange to ensure the grizzly bear’s long-term health and recovery. The Flathead’s revised Forest Plan fails to ensure this connectivity and thus threatens grizzly bear recovery as well as other species such as threatened bull trout and lynx.”
All those roads on the Flathead National Forest require culverts where they cross streams, and the USFWS said bull trout wouldn’t be harmed as long as the culverts were monitored. But the new national forest plan said culverts didn’t need to be monitored if the roads were “impassable.” As the Swan View Coalition inspection found, what the national forest considers impassible and what riders think is impassible are different things. So some culverts could deteriorate, leading to problems for bull trout, according to the lawsuit.
“The Flathead is a stronghold for bull trout whose strict habitat requirements of cold, clean water with little fine sediment make them an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Arlene Montgomery, Program Director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “The previous Forest Plan required culverts be removed before roads are closed because they can clog up and wash out the roadbed dumping tons of sediment into streams. The revised Plan eliminated this important standard and will lead to degraded habitat for native fish. This is unacceptable.”
The Forest Service chose 2011 as being representative because the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzly bears was increasing at that time. But the groups say that is an arbitrary choice; just because the population was increasing doesn’t mean it could endure over the long-term, especially with an ever-burgeoning human population.