Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Environmental groups are taking the Kootenai National Forest to court over another logging project that could affect a struggling population of grizzly bears in northwest Montana.

On Friday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council suedthe U.S. Forest Service and managers of the Kootenai National Forest for choosing to go ahead with the 153-square-mile Black Ram logging and treatment project in the Yaak region of northwest Montana.

In June, Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson signed a final decision to go ahead with the Black Ram project that had previously been put on hold for most of 2020 while the project was reevaluated.

The lawsuit takes issue with the fact that the logging project, planned to last 10 years, would occur in critical grizzly bear habitat, so it could have a detrimental effect on the doubly-threatened Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzly bears due to logging activities and roads in places that are supposed to be wild, including two inventoried roadless areas.

"There’s no other way to put it, the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is going downhill fast – which is the opposite of the agency’s legal mandate to recover, not extinguish, endangered species,” said Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, in a release.

The lawsuit says the plight of the Cabinet-Yaak population of grizzly bears has worsened between 2019 when the project’s environmental assessment was first written and now.

The 54 bears biologists estimated in 2017 has steadily dropped to just 42 bears in 2020. But the documents the Forest Service used to justify its project don’t show the drop in the grizzly population. Instead, the environmental assessment said “bear numbers have been increasing and with increasing confidence.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion and letter of concurrence in Sept. 2021. But that was also based on the 2017-2018 data.

The recovery goal is to have at least 100 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and to have genetic exchange between the Cabinet-Yaak and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to avoid inbreeding problems. Biologists were too busy this summer dealing with human-bear conflict in the Flathead Valley to transplant any bears from the NCDE.

In addition, the lawsuit says the environmental assessment also fails to accurately evaluate how logging roads would affect grizzlies, because it doesn’t accurately tally all the roads in the project area.

Research has shown that roads take their toll on grizzly bears in three ways. First, they allow people farther into core grizzly bear habitat so more bear shootings and collisions occur. There are more opportunities for bears to get habituated to human food so some must eventually be euthanized.

Finally, all the human commotion pushes bears out of good habitat into areas where they are less likely to survive. That’s because grizzly bears avoid roads, whether they’re open to traffic or not.

To save bears from humans, researchers recommend road densities of no more than 1 miles of open road per square-mile and double that density when considering both open and closed roads. In high quality habitat, less density is preferable, and “new roads into formerly unroaded areas may cause bears to abandon the area,” according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.

The Black Ram project area already has 408 miles of road and an overall road density of almost 3 miles-per-square-mile, but it will require construction of 3.3 miles of new permanent road and 90 miles of road reconstruction. Logging trucks would also use currently gated roads and routes that currently have barriers, but the environmental assessment doesn’t include that mileage.

The lawsuit argues that all those roads would cause the project to far exceed the densities allowed in grizzly country, mainly because many of the roads that are supposed to be closed to the public are regularly used, because berms and log barriers often aren’t effective.

Within the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, the Kootenai Forest Plan Access Amendment sets limits on open and total motorized route density and requires a minimum area of secure core habitat with no roads that are passable. Total route density includes both open and closed roads that aren’t obliterated.

The two grizzly bear management units in the Black Ram are supposed to have no more than about a third of each area with road densities greater than 1 mile-per-square-mile and at least 55% core habitat.

The problem is that many national forests have roads that they’ve closed but which are still illegally used and roads that are user-created. The lawsuit argues they should be counted as open roads.

On the Kootenai National Forest, the Yaak Valley Forest Council conducted a road survey in 2020 and 2021 that found “the Forest Service’s efforts to limit unauthorized use are ineffective at halting motor vehicle trespass, contradicting the commitments made in both the EA and [Biological Assessment],” according to the lawsuit. The Forest Council submitted numerous photos to the Forest Service documenting well-worn tracks going around 15 ineffective berms, 17 ineffective gates, and 13 roads with no gate or berm.

In 2020, the Kootenai Forest itself found 32 breached barriers and 40 breached gates and repaired only nine of the gates. However, it still excluded the roads from its environmental assessment calculations. But a Forest Service document indicated that the open road density could get as high as 42% during the project, according to the lawsuit.

Finally, other project activities - logging, thinning and burning - could also displace grizzly bears unless conducted during winter when bears are hibernating.

The lawsuit argued that all these things would affect a stable grizzly population, but since the Cabinet-Yaak population is barely hanging on, even more care should be taken to ensure that bears and bear habitat aren’t put at risk.

“The bottom line is that the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is failing every recovery target and goal,” Garrity said. “It is long past time for the Forest Service to recover grizzly bears by protecting their habitat as required by law instead of destroying it. It’s unfortunate we have to take the Forest Service to court to force it to follow the law, but it’s either that or watch the agency log and road the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population into extinction."

The Black Ram is just one of five large logging projects proposed by the Kootenai National Forest in the same general area. Others include the 35,000-acre OLY project, the 56,000-acre Buckhorn Project, the 72,550-acre North-East Yaak Project, and the 56,000-acre Knotty Pine project.

In May, five environmental groups sued to stop the Knotty Pine Project, again because it violated laws pertaining to grizzly bear protection.

The Forest Service always refuses to comment on issues related to litigation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at