Glacier Loon: Court halts Lindbergh Lake logging amid concern for grizzly bears

An appeals court found the U.S. Forest Service did most of its work right, but one snag means a Lindbergh Lake logging project is once again on hold.

This week, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the Glacier Loon Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project back to the lower court for one of the five reasons that environmental groups contended should keep the Flathead National Forest from moving ahead.

It all came down to a matter of timing.

The 37,320-acre Glacier Loon project includes commercial timber sales on 1,400 acres, which requires the building of almost 6 miles of temporary roads. However, the project area overlaps a few grizzly bear management subunits, one of which is currently designated “inactive,” which means logging activity is mostly prohibited in the months when bears aren’t denning until 2020.

The project has been planned since 2012, and the 2015 biological assessment that looked at how the project might affect grizzly bears was based on that grizzly subunit remaining inactive.

However, if the project were approved now, logging operations would probably take more than a year to complete, and once 2020 is over, it’s likely that the Flathead National Forest would want to log trees in the area that’s now inactive.

So the justices told the lower court to find out what the Flathead National Forest plans to do and to determine whether an injunction would be needed to stop logging in the inactive area until the Flathead National Forest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a new biological assessment that took expanded logging into account.

The Glacier Loon project was slated to begin as early as January this year after the Flathead National Forest updated its environmental assessment with information related to wolverines and grizzly bears. But it was held up by the government shutdown in January. Then in March, the appeals court granted an injunction while the environmental groups challenged both the Glacier Loon project and the adjacent 30,000-acre Beaver Creek project to the south of Lindberg Lake. The groups argued that the two projects created one giant project that should be taken as a whole, which would have a larger impact on wildlife.

But in May, the appeals court ruled in favor of the agency on Beaver Creek, even though they criticized the sub-par work the Forest Service justifying its assumptions that road density wasn’t over the line for elk habitat. Work on the project began this summer.

This time, however, the court leaned in favor of the environmental groups. But the groups were disappointed that the justices didn’t agree with their arguments that the Flathead National Forest hadn’t gone far enough to consider the effects of logging on wolverines or the effect of increased road density on grizzly bears. They based that part of their decision on the fact that even though the Flathead National Forest concluded the project “was likely to adversely affect grizzly bears,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded it “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of grizzly bears.”

The court agreed that the road density would exceed limits for grizzly bear habitat while the project was underway but agreed with the agency that the effect would be minimized by a requirement that most of the logging take place while bears are hibernating.

So although they’re pleased that the Forest Service must do more analysis, the groups are a bit skeptical that it would make much difference. The groups include the Swan View Coalition, the Friends of the Wild Swan, the Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

“The Flathead continually fails to provide secure habitat for grizzly bears in the Swan Valley,” said Arlene Montgomery, Friends of the Wild Swan program director. “The Swan has high road densities and has been heavily logged by the Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Company. The priority should be on letting this area heal by removing roads, which will not only protect grizzly bears, but also elk and other wildlife.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.