Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Three organizations are suing the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for failing to fully consider how a large logging and burning project might affect grizzly bears and Canada lynx.

It’s just one lawsuit in a larger effort to challenge an agency-wide policy that reduced protection for lynx.

On Friday, three nonprofit organizations - Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies - filed a complaint in Missoula federal district court against the U.S. Forest Service and asked for an injunction to stop the Pintler Face Project until the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest does a more thorough analysis of threats to threatened species.

“It’s absolutely one of the worst places in the state for clearcuts," said Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director. "For the Forest Service to propose a project like this in important habitat for lynx, grizzly bear, and wolverine -- which are all listed under the Endangered Species Act -- simply makes no sense.”

The Pintler Face Project, which was approved by Wisdom District Ranger Molly Ryan in September 2021, would log or burn more than 11,000 acres along the southeastern edge of the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness over the course of five to 10 years. The project was backed by the Beaverhead Deerlodge Working Group and the National Forest Foundation.

As part of the project, the Forest Service plans to clearcut almost 3,500 acres although it’s spread out across 40 project units. However, clearcuts in 29 of the 40 units are larger than 40 acres. Of those, 11 are larger than 100 acres and three are more than 200 acres.

The 1976 National Forest Management Act limited the size of a clearcut to 40 acres in Northern regions unless the regional forester grants an exception. Clearcuts can degrade an area due to erosion, larger variations in precipitation and temperature due to loss of cover, and wildlife habitat becomes fragmented. The larger the clearcut, the more pronounced the negative effects.

Ryan did remove all or part of five treatment units at the request of sportsmen or Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to preserve an elk migration corridor and cover for elk.

But clearcuts could be a problem for Canada lynx, a threatened species, and their primary food source, the snowshoe hare. The project area contains five lynx analysis units, and the project environmental analysis says logging and thinning would change lynx habitat and the associated human activity could affect any lynx that are there.

And lynx are there. A Western Lynx Biology Team reviewed information and samples the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest collected between 2017 and 2020 and concluded there were at least two verified lynx observations, which qualified the area as officially “occupied” by lynx, according to court records. So the Forest Service should be required to take a closer look.

In her September 2021 decision notice, Ryan said that, after consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she decided not treat snowshoe hare habitat in aspen and precommercial thinning units that overlapped lynx habitat.

However, in 2016, Regional Forester Leanne Marten sent a memo to the national forests of Region 1 directing them to reconsider their lynx habitat designations, according to court documents. Several national forests redrew their maps of lynx habitat in 2020, and the result shrank the amount of lynx habitat that had been originally mapped in 2001. It also enlarged lynx analysis units within each forest that were supposed to be small enough to measure the effects projects have on habitat.

In 2001, the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest had mapped more than 2.7 million acres of lynx habitat, divided into 509 lynx units. But at the time, the forest was considered unoccupied. The evidence that lynx now officially occupy the area changed everything, because it triggered a requirement that the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest - or any national forest with occupied lynx habitat - must “reduce or eliminate adverse effects from land management activities.”

But, Marten’s memo meant that would apply to fewer Forest Service lands. The 2020 mapping change reduced the acreage of lynx habitat on the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest by about 1.1 million acres and eliminated 431 lynx units.

However, the Forest Service made the changes in 2020 without going through a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Forest Service didn’t conduct an environmental study of the effect of such a large change so the public was not allowed to weigh in on the change.

In order to challenge the mapping change itself, organizations are having to challenge individual logging projects that occur in lynx habitat on each of the national forests that made the change. They’ve already challenged projects and won on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest of eastern Idaho and the Custer-Gallatin Forest in southern Montana. The Forest Service appealed ruling on the Custer-Gallatin Forest, but the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case on Feb. 7. So precedent has been set.

The organizations also challenged how clearcutting, thinning and the additional 11 miles of temporary roads of the Pintler Face Project would affect grizzly bears. Like lynx, grizzly bears weren’t likely in the Pintler area as of a decade ago. But now, reports of grizzly bears in the Big Hole Valley show that’s no longer the case.

The Forest Service says the amount of secure habitat in the grizzly bear analysis area that overlaps the project area is and will be about 47% based on the density of open Forest Service roads, according to court records. The plaintiffs point out that’s lower than the 55% required in other Forest Plans and they say the agency didn’t include the private or state roads in the area in its road-density calculation and doesn’t include all the illegal roads on the National Forest.

In her decision notice, Ryan said only 67 acres of secure grizzly habitat will be affected by timber activity, and that “effects to grizzly bear(s) from harvest activity and associated harvest activities in secure habitat are expected to be insignificant.”

Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a short five-page biological opinion that didn’t analyze the Forest Service claims of secure grizzly habitat, the plaintiffs want a more thorough biological opinion.

However, the biological opinion requires that no work be done during spring bear season, which lasts from March 1 through July 15. Because work has already begun, the injunction would ensure the Forest Service doesn’t work past March 1.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at