MISSOULA — Two environmental groups have filed separate lawsuits to stop the Soldier-Butler timber project in the Ninemile Valley after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided there was no long-term harm to grizzly bears.
On Monday, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force sued the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula federal court claiming the Soldier-Butler project adds too many roads that could affect migrating grizzly bears in the Ninemile drainage.
“The agencies failed to correct the errors we set forth in our 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue,” said Task Force President Patty Ames. “They must comply with the best available scientific information on survival of female grizzly bears and the standards in their own plans. The court system is our only way to ensure this happens.”
The group sent that 60-day notice on June 9 in response to Lolo National Forest supervisor Carolyn Upton’s April 17 approval of the project with a few modifications for grizzly bears.
The project would burn and thin about 10,000 acres along the northeast side of Ninemile Creek and harvest 18 million board feet. About 3,000 truckloads would be required to carry the timber out.
To enable those trucks, the Forest Service intended to build 7 miles of new roads, 9 miles of temporary roads, and rescinded a previous commitment to decommission 37 miles of existing road, although eventually, 100 miles are to be decommissioned.
The Task Force did its own analysis of existing roads in the 808-square-mile Ninemile drainage and found the average road density is 2.4 miles per square mile.
That’s a problem for grizzly bears.
Biologists have identified the area as being a potential migration corridor for grizzly bears moving between the Northern Continental Divide, the Cabinet-Yaak and the Bitterroot ecosystems. The Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Conservation Strategy designated the Ninemile drainage as a Demographic Connectivity Area, and the northeastern third of the Soldier-Butler project is in core grizzly bear habitat. The Ninemile needs to be protected if bears are to move around enough to keep the different populations from getting isolated and inbred.
But, research has shown that the more roads a region has, the more likely bears are to either die or avoid the area because roads bring people in. Canadian bear biologist Michael Proctor determined the maximum road density for grizzly bear survival is 1 mile per square mile.
Clearly, much of the Ninemile drainage already exceeds that density, so the Task Force said federal projects like the Soldier-Butler shouldn’t add to it.
On Aug. 10, before the Task Force could sue, Upton put the project on hold while she consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Three weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a new biological opinion concluding the project was “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear,” although it did acknowledge the project may cause “adverse effects to female grizzly as a consequence of the potential disturbance and/or displacement.”
The Task Force was disappointed, but since the timber sales had already gone through, they didn’t really expect Upton would put them on hold for long, said Mike Bader, consultant for the Task Force.
“The new biological opinion mentions the Proctor paper and admits it’s the best available science, but they didn’t act on it,” Bader said. “The (Demographic Connectivity Area) is the crucial link to Bitterroot (bear) recovery and maybe rescuing the Cabinet-Yaak population. All of Zone 1 is important, but this is elevated in importance above Zone 1. So its management should be too.”
Bader said the Task Force has filed a 60-day intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the new biological opinion.
After reading the biological opinion, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is taking legal action that mirrors that of the Task Force for basically the same reasons. It already filed its lawsuit on Friday.
Michael Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, said the Forest Service usually promises to close or decommission roads within a project area but then doesn’t follow up once the project is done.
For example, the Soldier-Butler Project overlaps with a previous timber project, the Frenchtown Face Ecosystem Restoration Project, which the Forest Service approved in 2006. As part of that project, the Forest Service was to decommission 115 miles of roads to benefit grizzly bears and big game.
“The Soldier-Butter Project reverses the Frenchtown Face Project’s decision to decommission the roads in the overlap area,” Garrity said. “Instead of decommissioning the remaining 70 miles of the Frenchtown Face Project in the overlap area, the Soldier-Butler Project will only decommission 34 miles of roads within the overlap area.”
“They made one promise in the Frenchtown Face project and another for the Soldier Butler project. Like many Forest Service projects, the trees get cut, but the mitigation work such as road removal never gets done,” Garrity said.
Bader pointed out that most of the roads the Forest Service said it would close on the Soldier-Butler Project are already overgrown and impassible. Even the biological opinion said their closure on paper wouldn’t add any benefit for the grizzly bear because no actual change will happen on the ground.
Bader said the Task Force is going with its own lawsuit because it has been building rapport with landowners in the Ninemile. A few didn’t like the Forest Service asking to access the timber project across their private land. The Task Force also reached out to the Missoula County Commission.
“This is the only way we can get the protection that the bears need. They’ve had three levels of administrative opportunity to remedy the problems and they didn’t use them,” Bader said.