Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alerting them it intends to sue the federal government for approving a large timber sale in the southern Bitterroot mountain range. They said the plan will harm two already threatened species – grizzly bears and bull trout – if it proceeds.

It also raised concerns that some whitebark pine trees will be taken. Whitebark pine trees are currently being considered for “threatened species” status.

The group filed a formal notice on Thursday, which is a necessary requirement before the case can be taken to court. It allows the federal government time to reconsider its decision before moving onto litigation.

“Federal officials approved this destructive logging project without fully considering its harm to the Bitterroots’ animals and plants, including threatened species,” said Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Bull trout are teetering on the edge of extinction and this project could wipe them out entirely. We need to stop the bulldozers and chainsaws before it’s too late.”

The United States Forest Service has a policy of not commenting on current or pending litigation.

The project, called the Mud Creek Project, authorizes commercial logging across 13,700 acres, including prescribed burns and non-commercial logging that is estimated to take at least 20 years. The location is southwest of Darby.

In its letter, the center says the federal government is side-stepping specifics because it “claims that the precise location, timing and scope of the treatments will be decided during the time the project is implemented and when crews are on the ground.”

It said that the fish and wildlife service haven’t consulted properly about the project, and haven’t fully considered the impact on the threatened species.

The Center for Biological Diversity also raised alarms because the forest service has stated that Mud Creek logging activities may start this summer “and likely before consultation (with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is complete.”

The center also said that because “the site-specific” locations of the project aren’t known, it’s impossible to tell what impact the logging will have on the bull trout.

“Bull trout populations within the Bitterroots are declining and are at a very high risk of extirpation from climate change and sedimentation from high road density,” the letter said.

The center also criticizes the U.S. Forest Service’s plan for the project saying that, according to its own documents, the service determined that “the potential for sediment to be delivered is still high on the Nez Perce Fork and Rombo Creek,” and has done nothing to address those problems in its plans.

“This arbitrary determination not only fails to acknowledge the fact that many mitigation measures are unknown and nonbinding, but also that the Bitterroot National Forest monitoring reports indicate an ongoing and near consistent failure … in reducing or eliminating sediment delivery across the forest,” the letter said

The Center for Biological Diversity also said that the U.S. Forest isn’t following its own science about bull trout.

“The agencies failed to consider and analyze the best available information regarding bull trout in the Bitterroots because the agencies seemingly failed to adequately consider the ‘Conservation Strategy for Bull Trout of the United States Forest Service lands in Western Montana.’  The conservation strategy was drafted, in part, by the forest service and highlights the dire landscape and condition of bull trout populations and critical habitat in the Bitterroot.”

Grizzly bears

The letter faults the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service for using data courts have already deemed incorrect in estimating the number of grizzlies that live in the Mud Creek area.

“The forest service did not discuss or disclose the effects the 21 miles of new motorized trails will have in grizzly bear security and whether these new motorized trails will reduce secure habitat more than disclosed,” the letter said. “The forest service also cannot identify where and when the permanent roads will be constructed and thus cannot accurately discuss and disclose the impacts to secure habitat.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has been involved in many disputes regarding grizzly bears, pointing out that one of the greatest indicators of suitable habitat have been roads.

“As the grizzly bear recovery plans acknowledges, a road impacts grizzly bears beyond the lifetime of that individual road,” the letter said. “This is because once a grizzly bear is impacted by a road, it avoids that area and teaches its cubs to avoid that area. Therefore, the impact of a temporary road lasts for generations.”

Because of the project’s 20-year timespan, the center objects that the roads that will be used are classified as “temporary,” since federal law defines a temporary road as one that lasts for less than five years.