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Lolo Forest delays Ninemile project to reconsider threats to grizzly bears

After grizzly bear advocates threatened to sue, the Lolo National Forest has put a logging project on hold in order to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over potential threats to wildlife.

Last week, Lolo National Forest supervisor Carolyn Upton sent a letter to the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force saying she had considered the concerns they’d raised related to the Soldier-Butler forest management project in the Ninemile watershed.

On June 9, the group had sent Upton a 60-day notice of intent to sue, highlighting a handful of problems with the Soldier-Butler project that they felt violated federal law, including the addition of more roads to the area and a laissez-faire acceptance of possible losses of grizzlies.

The grizzly bear is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, so killing one is illegal. In order for the grizzly to be delisted, the various populations have to grow so they’re large enough to persist, and bears have to be able to move between the recovery areas to prevent inbreeding.

The Ninemile drainage is one of the few corridors that allow grizzly bears to migrate between the Cabinet-Yaak, Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Bitterroot recovery areas. The problem for the Citizen Task Force is the Soldier Butler Project sits right in the center of the 808-square-mile Ninemile Demographic Connectivity Area, and the northeastern third of the project is in core grizzly bear habitat.

The project, which Upton finalized on April 17, would burn and thin about 10,000 acres along the northeast side of Ninemile Creek and harvest 18 million board feet. About 3,000 truckloads would be required to carry the timber out.

To accomplish that, the Forest Service intended to build 7 miles of new roads, 9 miles of temporary roads and rescinded a previous commitment to decommission 37 miles of existing road, although eventually 100 miles are to be decommissioned.

All those roads are or would be built too close together to be safe for grizzly bears. Research has shown that more bears die when the road density increases above 1 mile per square mile, because more roads allow more chances for human-bear conflict.

The Task Force did an analysis of roads in the Ninemile area and found the average road density is already 2.4 miles per square mile. So building more roads for the project wouldn’t favor bears and if any bears died as a result, the Lolo National Forest could be responsible for an illegal taking.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighed in on the project earlier this year, requiring the Forest Service to minimize the activity in certain logging units so the 9 miles of temporary road and 40 miles of restricted road would be used as little as possible to reduce the effect on grizzly bears.

In her April 17 decision, Upton said “impacts to wildlife, specifically big game and grizzly bears, weighed heavily in my decision.” In response to public comment and suggestions from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, she reduced the amount of thinning in a few small units, limited some road-building and logging to the winter, and said hiding cover would be maintained near certain roads.

But now, based on her Aug. 10 letter, Upton appears to be less certain those changes would go far enough to protect bears.

“After review of the information provided in the (notice of intent to sue), we have decided to reinitiate consultation on the Soldier Butler Project and revise or amend the biological opinion to more clearly address these issues. No ground disturbing activities will occur until the re-initiation process is completed,” Upton wrote.

The Task Force is waiting to see what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides.

“This decision is a temporary reprieve for the grizzly bear and all the fish and wildlife in the Ninemile,” said Patty Ames, president of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force. “This is an opportunity for the Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to get it right and protect this area.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.