Montanans scored a big victory for elk and grizzly bears recently when a federal court found significant problems and halted yet another Forest Service road-building and logging project in the upper Blackfoot River watershed.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed our lawsuit against the “Stonewall project” to protect the region’s grizzly bears and wild, free-roaming elk herds.
In the 1980’s, the Forest Service adopted a formal land management plan, called a “forest plan,” which set out certain mandatory levels of protection for wildlife habitat on the Helena National Forest. Included was a requirement to conserve areas of unlogged national forest as “hiding cover” for wildlife.
Another requirement sets conditions on road-building in the forest to prevent a spider-web of roads that fragment essential blocks of intact forest habitat. There is scientific consensus that logging and road-building are two of the most harmful activities in elk and grizzly habitat because both activities disturb and displace wildlife from its preferred habitat.
Yet, despite these mandatory legal protections for wildlife in the forest plan, over the past decade the Forest Service adopted the practice of exempting logging and road-building projects from compliance with the sensible, scientifically-sound requirements. Instead, if a logging project violated the protections, the Forest Service simply issued a “site-specific forest plan amendment” to exempt the project from compliance.
As noted in the Court’s Order, the agency has resorted to these exemptions “at least eight times prior to this project” including the Tenmile, Telegraph, Red Mountain Flume/Chessman, Cabin Gulch, Hazardous Tree Removal, Cave Gulch, Jimtown, and Miller Mountain logging and road-building projects. The Court concluded that: “Every single prior site-specific amendment addressed in the EIS reduces elk cover, in direct contravention of binding Forest Plan Standards.”
By repeatedly issuing these successive exemptions for projects where the legal protections apply, the Forest Service has rendered the protections contained in the Forest Plan completely useless – which is why we filed our lawsuit to hold the government accountable to the law and stop these on-going end-runs around critical habitat protections for grizzly bears and free-roaming wild elk herds.
Nor are we alone in our concerns. Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks’ biologists have repeatedly stressed to the Forest Service that habitat degradation from roads and logging on National Forests results in displacement of elk from public lands to private lands.
“The number of elk that spend the majority of the year on some nearby private lands has increased dramatically between 1986 and 2013” the state biologists wrote, adding: “FWP has consistently urged the [Helena National Forest] to increase functional fall habitat security on the Lincoln Ranger District.”
In addition to reducing public land hunting opportunities elk can cause problems for private landowners from damage to fences and haystacks. To be clear: the Forest Service has systematically displaced elk from public lands to private lands, resulting in dramatically lower elk hunting success.
Reducing logging and road-building on National Forests to follow the law and comply with science-backed habitat needs not only protects wild, free-roaming elk herds on public lands but also protects critical habitat for other species that are harmed by roads and logging — including endangered grizzly bears, wolverines, and lynx.
The federal court’s decision stopped the Stonewall project and set important legal precedent in favor of protecting public wildlife on public lands. But one victory is not enough. When facing the long-standing “get out the cut” mentality of the Forest Service it takes endless pressure, endlessly applied to ensure healthy, wild, free-roaming elk herds and grizzly populations for future generations. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies welcomes your help to keep the good fight going.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies