The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is challenging the Forest Service’s failure to analyze impacts to threatened grizzly bears from widespread illegal motorized use across Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest, which stretches 2.8-million acres through central and north-central Montana.
Illegal motorized use includes motorized use on “closed” roads by driving around gates or barriers or ripping them out, as well as illegal off-road motorized use and illegal user-created motorized trails and roads.
National Forest motorized use restrictions are in place for very good reasons, not the least of which is to provide secure habitat to grizzly bears and other road-sensitive wildlife like elk and wolverines. But when we requested the Forest Service’s law enforcement records we found hundreds of violations of the existing restrictions in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest without any analysis of impacts to wildlife.
After we received this information – which we believe is merely the tip of the iceberg because it only addresses reported violations – it became crystal clear that the Forest Service cannot assume that motorized use restrictions are effective simply because the agency writes them down on paper.
Consequently, we sent the Trump administration a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue last March stating we would take the issue to federal court unless the Forest Service consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of recurring illegal motorized use on grizzly bears, which are a species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
These recurring violations undeniably demonstrate that illegal motorized use is a chronic and pervasive problem that the Forest Service has routinely ignored. Consequently its road density calculations for all of its project and plan analyses are likely inaccurate and significantly underestimating both the amount of actual motorized use on National Forest lands and the actual impacts on wildlife.
Our main concern is that roads cause a loss of and damage to wildlife habitat. It is well documented that most grizzly bears are killed near roads because roads provide access into grizzly bear habitat, which leads directly to bear mortality from intentional poaching. The grizzlies that manage to escape this fate teach their young to avoid roads, which results in the secondary harm of forcing bears to survive in rocky, high-elevation areas that are largely unsuitable habitat.
Bears prefer the more suitable habitat near streams and rivers – but that’s where the roads are. Likewise, elk avoid roads because they know that is where most hunters are. Wolverines also associate roads with people and thus avoid them.
Roads also pour sediment into streams, destroying critical spawning habitat for native bull trout which, like grizzlies, are on the Endangered Species List and must by law be protected until their populations can recover and achieve stability.
Although law enforcement maintains records of reported illegal motorized use, there is no analysis of this information in any type of monitoring report or planning document by the management divisions of the Forest Service. The agency has never quantified the number of miles of additional motorized use that these hundreds of violations represent on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Nor has the Forest Service analyzed the effects of this pervasive and widespread illegal motorized use on grizzly bears.
Although annual monitoring reports with up-to-date motorized use calculations are legally required, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest has never issued a monitoring report with a full disclosure of illegal motorized use.
In contrast, the nearby Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle National Forests disclose illegal motorized use in grizzly habitat every year in their annual monitoring reports, and they recalculate road density to include that illegal use and provide a more accurate picture of conditions on the ground. The fact that the agency is already doing this on other National Forests means that they can also do it on the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest.
Because illegal motorized use will always occur, the Forest Service must disclose the full extent of this illegal motorized use and factor it into its road density calculations. If these new and more accurate calculations show that conditions on the ground do not meet the best available science for grizzly bears, the Forest Service must physically remove existing roads with complete obliteration until grizzly habitat complies with the best available science.
In addition to helping bears, this road removal program would provide good-paying jobs in the woods and improve the quality of our fisheries and our elk hunting opportunities on public lands. There is such a thing as a win-win for both bears and our local economy.
Please consider making a donation to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to help us prosecute this important case.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies