(CN) — A federal judge in Montana blocked the U.S. Forest Service’s “Black Ram Project” within the Kootenai National Forest on Thursday, finding that the agency made a series of errors in authorizing the project last year.

According to the lengthy order from U.S. District Judge Donald M. Molloy, the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of the project in June 2022 “violated various statutory requirements” under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

“Here, the errors are serious and disruptive consequences of vacatur relatively minor,” Molloy wrote, adding that, while the government’s project intends to move the Kootenai National Forest in a healthier direction, “vacating decisions reliant on such serious errors actually furthers the goals of both statutes.”

The case at hand began in June 2022 when the Center for Biological Diversity, Yaak Valley Forest Council and WildEarth Guardians sued the federal government for approving the Black Ram Project in the Three Rivers Ranger District of the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana.

The project, initially developed by the Forest Service in 2017, has several objectives that include promoting resilient vegetation, improving watersheds and the sustainability of timber products and reducing the potential for high intensity wildfires. According to the plaintiffs, however, the project would “clearcut forest, destroy and fragment habitat, displace wildlife, alter hydrology and adversely affect the area’s tiny grizzly population.”

The project is located within the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem Recovery Zone, an area that is one of six recovery zones the service designated to evaluate grizzly bear recovery in the U.S. According to the service’s own findings, the project would reduce the forest’s overstory canopy, negatively affecting growing conditions for grizzly bear food sources. The Forest Service also concluded that attempts to improve such conditions along roads would be nil since “bears tend to avoid areas along motorized routes” — a finding made more concerning since the project authorizes 3.3 miles of new permanent roads.

In early January 2023, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a similar complaint against the government, leading Montana’s federal courts to consolidate the two cases.

Together, the plaintiffs assert that the Forest Service violated federal law by failing to demonstrate that the project complies with the access amendment and interagency grizzly bear guidelines of the Kootenai National Forest’s 2015 Forest Plan. The plaintiffs also assert the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take a hard look at unauthorized motorized use and the project’s impacts to the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population while refusing to prepare a full environmental impact statement and a supplemental environmental assessment.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho intervened as a defendant, stating that it has interest in the project because it is located in aboriginal territory and that it’s consistent with the tribe’s “holistic and proactive approach towards land management.”

However, Molloy largely agreed with the plaintiffs’ claims on Thursday, ruling that — amongst several considerations — that the government violated the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by relying on the Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion that “failed to use the best available science in establishing an environmental baseline” for grizzlies, failing to consider the project’s carbon impacts and the effects of illegal road use and omitting a supplemental environmental statement regarding changes to the grizzly population.

Where the judge disagreed with the plaintiffs is whether the Forest Service’s biological opinion is arbitrary and capricious because Fish and Wildlife allegedly didn’t consider isolated populations of grizzly bears between the Yaak Valley and the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

“Federal defendants and the tribe counter both that the populations are not completely isolated and that the FWS did in fact consider population connectivity in the BiOp,” Molloy wrote. “Federal defendants and the tribe have the better argument.”

Molloy also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that Fish and Wildlife is required to make a jeopardy determination at the sub-species level of a recovery area and that the agency didn’t disclose record evidence of road closures or discuss them within the project decision and environmental assessment.

Ultimately, Molloy’s order vacates the government’s environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact and biological opinion — remanding such assessments to agencies until they comply with his order.

“The project may not continue while the agencies remedy these issues,” Molloy wrote.

Representatives of government defendants were not immediately available for comment. Soon after the decision, however, Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, issued a statement celebrating the win.

"We are thrilled that the federal district court ruled in our favor because 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,” Garrity said. “In 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 54 grizzlies in its monitoring report. In 2019 only 50, down to 45 in 2020 and the 2021 estimate is only 42 bears. That’s a stunning crash of nearly one-quarter of the population in only four years!"

Senior attorney Ted Zukoski of the Center for Biological Diversity also called the ruling a "great win for the wild forests and grizzly bears of Montana's spectacular Yaak Valley."

“This decision affirms that agencies can’t ignore the vulnerability of this small but critical population of grizzlies and can’t turn a blind eye to the climate harms of clearcutting mature forests," Zukoski said.