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Swan Valley groups oppose ski area expansion in grizzly habitat

Posted: 11:46 AM, Jan 13, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-13 14:23:48-05
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Two Swan Valley conservation groups are objecting to more development in grizzly habitat as they try to hold the Flathead National Forest to its promises to protect grizzly bears.

Thursday was the last day for comment on the Flathead National Forest’s Hellroaring Basin Improvement Plan, which would benefit the Whitefish Mountain Resort by adding new ski runs, moving one chairlift and adding another with associated service roads, and thinning the nearby forest for glade skiing.

Tally Lake District Ranger Bill Mulholland released his initial decision on Nov. 28.

The Friends of the Wild Swan, the Swan View Coalition and wildlife consultant Brian Peck submitted their in-depth opposition to the expansion at the last minute.

“The Flathead is arbitrarily ignoring the Forest Plan requirement to maintain grizzly bear security in the Hellroaring Basin in favor of increased development, recreation, roads, logging and habitat fragmentation,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan in a statement. “This also impacts lynx, wolverine and other wildlife.”

The development would be within the resort’s existing permit boundary on Forest Service land, but currently, not as many skiers venture into Hellroaring Basin with only one intermediate-level run. The resort wants to change that.

If approved, helicopters and heavy equipment would be used over three years to enlarge the resort by about 800 acres. Machines would log the trees where feasible, and hand felling would occur elsewhere, the Forest Service said.

“This is probably the single biggest and most complex project I’ve handled for the resort,” said Hans Castren, Forest Service recreation specialist, in November 2018.

The problem is the additional roads and activity would occur in grizzly bear habitat that federal, state and tribal biologists have labeled as “secure core,” part of the primary conservation area for Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bears.

Under the NCDE grizzly bear conservation strategy that was rushed to publication in 2018, federal agencies are supposed to “maintain the habitat conditions that existed during the period when the NCDE grizzly bear population was stable to increasing.” Biologists set that period as the year 2011.

Adding more roads and ski runs doesn’t preserve the conditions of 2011, especially when combined with the already-approved Taylor-Hellroaring Project , which will log almost 1,000 acres, including 82 acres of clearcut, and add 28 miles of trails.

In his decision, Mulholland said the project could have a limited adverse effect on endangered or threatened species or their habitat, though a wildlife analysis concluded “the proposed action may affect, and would likely adversely affect Canada lynx critical habitat, Canada lynx, and grizzly bear.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion concluded the project would not be likely to jeopardize those species, nor would it destroy or adversely modify their habitat.

Swan View Coalition spokesman Keith Hammer said the point isn’t whether the project destroys habitat – it’s not a matter of going that far. It’s whether the federal agencies are following the road limitations amended in the previous 1986 Flathead National Forest Plan, and which are mentioned in the NCDE conservation strategy.

After finalizing a new plan in 2018, the national forest changed how it deals with roads.

“The Flathead is talking out of both sides of its mouth,” Hammer said. “Publicly, it says the 2018 (Forest) plan protects habitat as it was in 2011. But when we challenge these projects, then we get these admissions (from them) that they don’t have to maintain 2011 conditions.”

Grizzly bears don’t do well in regions that have higher road and trail densities, which is why limits were mandated for grizzly habitat.

Research has demonstrated that roads open to vehicles increase bear mortality either through collisions or by bringing in more hunters. Trails and closed roads are also a problem because bears can waste energy trying to avoid them, and they can cause bears to become habituated to the presence of people, which can lead to conflict down the road. Biologists reported in December that interactions with humans accounts for more than 90% of grizzly bear deaths in the NCDE.

The best bear habitat has as few roads and trails as possible, but that kind of area is slowly being chipped away.

In spite of that, under its 2018 plan, the Forest Service no longer includes roads that are blocked off but still accessible in its road-density calculations. The agency used to have to decommission – completely destroy – a road before the road could be taken off the books.

The conservation groups say blocked-off roads are still a danger for bears, because a gate or a few boulders across the roads don’t stop people from traveling on them. That danger increases if faster e-bikes become more common.

With closed but still usable roads out of the equation, the Forest Service can build new roads, including chairlift service roads, and still meet road density limitations for grizzly bears. Except they don’t, Hammer said.

“You can have an infinite number and mileage of non-motorized roads on the FNF as long as they’re blocked off,” Hammer said. “The Flathead’s phony numbers scheme is deceitful and allows unchecked human development of grizzly bear habitat. The security numbers they show the public admittedly don’t include the impacts of planned developments like mountain bike trails, new logging roads and ski area expansions. It’s disgusting.”

Former Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber made several public statements in the past few years favoring recreation over grizzly bear protection, particularly after a Forest Service employee riding a trial on his bicycle died after running into a grizzly bear.

Weber retired on Jan. 1, and Mulholland, who oversees the Whitefish Mountain Resort, is now the acting Flathead National Forest supervisor. Hammer isn’t optimistic about the change in leadership.

“From everything we can see on the Flathead, Chip Weber poisoned the well – this whole issue of promoting recreation without protecting wildlife, in this case especially grizzly bears, and being really pretty careless about what that expansion means, both for bears and for people,” Hammer said.

Hammer said filing Thursday’s objection keeps the groups in the public process, so they could possibly sue in the future.

However, they have already filed a lawsuit objecting to the 2018 Flathead Forest Plan itself, which failed to include some of the grizzly bear protections of the previous amended plan. Forest managers now cite the new plan as justification for what they propose, some of which wasn’t allowed under amendments of the previous plan.

“That’s at least a year down the road,” Hammer said. “If we get the relief we want there, they might have to back up and re-evaluate these projects.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .