Comment period extended for game range logging project near Blackfoot
(Missoula Current) After members of the public protested a 15-day comment period on a logging project on the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks granted another 15 days.
On Jan. 4, FWP released an environmental assessment of a proposed logging project on 1,500 acres of the Ovando Mountain unit of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. At that time, FWP set the comment period to close on Jan. 19.
A number of commenters objected to the 15-day comment period. FWP on Friday extended the period to 30 days. Comments are now due Feb. 4.
This isn’t the first time FWP has proposed short comment periods and then extended the deadline. In early December, FWP proposed a comment period of 30 days for its new grizzly bear management plan, but later extended it to 60 days after people protested that the holidays and the intricacies of the plan made it hard for the public to respond within a month. Comments on the grizzly management plan are also due on Feb. 4.
The more well-known portion of the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area consists of about 2,000 acres just northeast of Clearwater Junction, east of Highway 89 and north of Highway 200 in the Blackfoot River Valley. The two parcels of the Ovando Mountain unit are 10 miles farther east, along the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. FWP acquired most of the Ovando Mountain unit between 1957 and 1965.
Dubbed the “Doney Lake Forest Habitat Improvement Project,” the project proposes to log or burn 1,500 acres in two sections just north of Doney Lake and two smaller parcels farther north that abut the Blackfoot Community Conservation Core Area, 5,600 acres belonging to the Blackfoot Challenge. According to the environmental assessment, FWP worked closely with Blackfoot-Challenge land steward, Brad Weltzien, to develop the project. Work would start this July and continue for five years.
Most of the project area is considered “Stand 2,” which would be subject to commercial logging and pre-commercial thinning using ground-based logging equipment such as feller-bunchers and skidders. Crews would log everything within 100 feet of aspen stands. Machines would operate from Dec. 1 through April 1 or July 15 through mid-October, avoiding the general rifle season.
To truck the commercial logs out, FWP would build a third of a mile of new road and reconstruct 21 miles of out-of-commission roads. It would also maintain 14 miles of road by clearing all trees to a distance of 10 feet on both sides of the road.
The department brought the project to the FWP commission on Oct. 28, 2021, which unanimously endorsed pursuing the project after receiving no public comment. Back then, FWP administrator Ken McDonald told the commission the project was planned for only 268 acres and would include commercial thinning of intermediate-sized Douglas Fir and western Larch to open the understory for elk and deer and reduce the threat of wildfire.
That led to the development of the environmental assessment, which was published on Dec. 5, 2022. Once FWP considers all the public comment, it will return the environmental assessment and its recommendation to the FWP commission for final approval.
While FWP took care to avoid times of high bird-nesting activity - March 15 to July 15 - men and machines would be working in grizzly habitat when bears are out: July 15 through mid-October. The EA concluded that grizzly bears could be affected, but clearing trees from the area could improve the berry crop so “FWP expects any impacts associated with the proposed action would be both short and long-term, minor, and generally beneficial” to grizzly bears.
Nine miles east of the Ovando Mountain unit is a project area the Helena National Forest dubbed the Stonewall Project, which the Forest Service wanted to log, saying it would improve elk habitat. Environmental groups called foul, and in December 2021, a judge found that the project logged too many trees to retain enough hiding cover for elk during hunting season and thermal cover during the winter. And just like grizzly bears, elk don’t survive well when road densities get above a certain level, which was exceeded within the project area.
Steve Kelly, Council for Wildlife and Fish president, cited a 1985 study called “Coordinating Elk and Timber Management,” written by members of FWP, the University of Montana, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Plum Creek Timber Company. Since vehicle traffic evokes an avoidance response in elk, and declines in elk have been detected as far as 2 miles from open roads, “open road densities should be held to a low level,” the study said.
Habitat effectiveness for elk can decline by a half when road densities are 2 miles per section or more, according to the report. The Doney Lake environmental assessment includes no analysis of road densities, and FWP doesn’t have to meet Forest Service requirements. But, the 18 or so miles of roughly parallel reconstructed road in the two sections north of Doney Lake exceed 2 miles per section.
“Logging to improve forest health and wildlife habitat is meaningless fiction,” Kelly said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.