Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) An appeals court has decided that the Flathead National Forest management plan adequately addresses endangered species, now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updated its assessment of the plan.

On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals filed a five-page memorandum in favor of the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agreeing with federal district court Judge Donald Molloy that the Flathead National Forest properly considered public challenges to its 2018 Management Plan so the plan can stand.

“Therefore, the Forest Service did not ignore any adverse impact of the (final environmental impact statement on grizzly bears and bull trout) and took ‘the requisite hard look’ at the environmental consequences of its actions, regardless whether Swan View agrees with its scientific conclusion,” the three-judge panel wrote.

In 2019, the Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition sued Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the new Flathead Forest Management Plan was less protective of grizzly bears because it was less restrictive than the previous plan on the amount and density of roads in core grizzly habitat. In addition, the Forest had already planned for logging projects that would add an additional 70 miles of roads.

In June 2021, the one point where Molloy ruled against the Forest Service was because the Forest Plan relied on an older 2017 Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion regarding grizzly bears and bull trout that didn’t address parts of the new management plan. But, the Service subsequently issued a new biological opinion in February 2022, which made that issue moot. That came out around the same time as the appeal was filed.

The American Forests Resource Council and the Montana Logging Association intervened in the case in support of the U.S. Forest Service. On Friday, American Forests Resource Council attorney Sara Ghafouri praised the memorandum, saying that now, logging projects can move ahead.

"This gives our public lands managers the certainty they need to develop and implement projects that are needed to reduce the risks of severe wildfire and to improve the health and resiliency of forests. It also provides certainty to Montana's forest sector that supports jobs in our rural communities and will perform much of the work to help the Forest Service meet its management and conservation goals,” Ghafouri said in a release.

However, Kurt Steele won’t be overseeing the Flathead Forest Management Plan. As of Friday, USFS Region 1 press officer Dan Hottle said Steele “was offered and accepted” a new post as deputy director at the regional office that involves “environmental planning,” according to the Flathead Beacon. It is unknown who will be Steele’s replacement.

In his June 2021 ruling, Molloy questioned why the Flathead National Forest Plan abandoned grizzly bear protections that became Forest Service policy in 1995. That’s when the agency created “Amendment 19,” which set standards for motorized use and road density within grizzly management units to preserve the amount of roadless secure core area. The aim was to have at least 68% of each management unit qualify as secure core areas. Amendment 19 also helps bull trout because fewer roads mean fewer stream culverts that can be crushed or blocked with debris.

The previous Flathead Forest Management Plan, written in 1986, incorporated Amendment 19 in 1995. It would have required the forest to destroy a number of existing but supposedly closed roads. But the new 2018 plan ignored those requirements. Instead, managers chose as a baseline the higher density of roads existing in 2011, arguing that the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear population was growing in 2011 so the existing roads must not have been a problem.

But there's no doubt that roads leading into wild country are bad for bears. Research has shown that extending roads into wild areas increases the chance of human-bear conflict, which often results in humans killing bears. Most recently, a hunter up in the Priest Lake area of northern Idaho mistakenly shot and killed a grizzly.

Even the 2017 USFWS Biological Opinion said “the presence of roads and associated human activities has detrimental impacts to grizzly bears.” Even if bears don’t die directly, they learn to avoid roads, so adding more roads can force bears out of their optimal habitat. Thus, in “secure grizzly habitat,” the fewer the roads, the better.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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