Wildlife advocates are suing the U.S. Forest Service to stop another logging project in core grizzly bear habitat of the Kootenai National Forest.

On Tuesday, wildlife organizations sued the U.S. Forest Service and the Kootenai National Forest in Missoula federal court over the lack of grizzly bear habitat analysis in the decision to okay the Knotty Pine Project north of Troy.

The plaintiffs include Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yaak Valley Forest Council, WildEarth Guardians and Native Ecosystems Council.

Approved on March 24 by Kootenai Forest supervisor Chadwick Benson, the 56,000-acre project would log more than 5,000 acres over 10 years – including 57 acres of old-growth forest and 14 clearcuts of more than 40 acres, with one exceeding 220 acres – for the purpose of harvesting 29 million board-feet of lumber.

Almost 4,800 acres would be burned with aerial ignition using helicopters, and 35 miles of old logging roads would be reconstructed while another 2 miles would be new.

Instead of conducting a more thorough environmental impact statement, the Kootenai Forest said the project would have “no significant impact,” so it chose to do a less-detailed environmental assessment beginning in September 2020.

The plaintiffs criticized the lack of detail, especially when it came to assessing grizzly bear survival where the impact could be significant. Since all but 1,200 acres of the project lies within core habitat of the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Area, the plaintiffs say the Kootenai Forest has violated its own Forest Management Plan by allowing such a destructive project. Especially since both the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the project “is likely to adversely affect the grizzly bear.”

The plaintiffs have indicated they will also file a complaint against the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Roads and clearcutting are some of the biggest threats to this extremely fragile population of grizzly bears,” said Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a release. “Not only did the agencies completely ignore the very real effects of illegal and unauthorized roads on grizzly bears, but they also failed to consider how opening more than 45 miles of roads in grizzly bear habitat will further harm this threatened population.”

The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is dangerously small, with only 45 bears throughout the 2,600 square-mile recovery area, according to a 2020 estimate. Of those, five collared bears reside within the Knotty Pine project area.

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. But over recent years, the population has slowly decreased, affected by poaching and reduced breeding.

In a 2021 species assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that better conservation measures were needed to improve grizzly survival in the Cabinet-Yaak.

More roads won’t improve the grizzlies’ prospect. The Fish and Wildlife Service has identified roads as the most imminent threat to grizzlies today because roads allow people to invade deeper into grizzly habitat, which leads to accidental and defense-of-life shootings and poaching. It also pushes bears into other areas that may not be good habitat.

That’s why, in 2011, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service adopted the Access Management Amendment for grizzly bears. The amendment modifies the 2015 Kootenai Forest Management Plan to limit motorized access and road density within the Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.

Within the bear management unit of the Knotty Pine project, at least 55% of the habitat is to remain secure while road densities are limited in the rest of the area. Travel on some of the remaining roads is to be limited.

The project includes more than 13,000 acres of the Buckhorn Inventoried Roadless Area, which should have helped protect bear habitat. But the plaintiffs say the Kootenai Forest hasn’t observed the limitations of the amendment. Plus, the Kootenai Forest may keep an additional five illegal roads open because the logging is occurring under the Good Neighbor Authority, which gives the state of Montana authority to log Forest Service land.

Even more concerning to Rick Bass, noted author and Yaak Valley Forest Council interim director, is the fact that four massive adjacent forest projects totaling 492 square miles are approved or proposed for the Yaak region.

They include the 35,000-acre OLY project to the south, and to the north and east, the 56,000-acre Buckhorn Project, the 95,400-acre Black Ram Project and the 72,550-acre North-East Yaak Project. The cumulative effect is that wildlife species have fewer places to escape to when chainsaws, helicopters and trucks are roaring all around them.

Research shows that, in addition to destroying wildlife habitat, denuded areas, such as clearcuts or dead whitebark pine forests, have reduced snow and water retention due to a lack of canopy cover. The result is worsening drought due to earlier snowmelt and higher than normal runoff that declines earlier in the summer.

Bass has criticized projects like the Black Ram, calling them “a fever dream, a remnant zombie from the previous reign.”

“The Knotty Pine proposal is yet one more in a linked series of giant logging projects that would replace cool, wet forests with hot, dry clearcuts. We want to keep our water in the Yaak,” Bass said.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to find that the Knotty Pine project is illegal because it violates the Access Management Amendment and to either shut it down completely or halt it until the Forest Service conducts a valid environmental impact statement.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.