Judge halts change to grizzly habitat designation

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A federal judge has blocked a plan to carve new roads into a 36,700-acre block of secure grizzly bear habitat within the Stillwater State Forest north of Whitefish.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s ruling, issued late Thursday, preserves the “Stillwater Core” grizzly bear habitat from elimination under a plan by the state of Montana that called for building new roads to open the area to increased logging.

In the ruling, Molloy concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by approving the state plan and issuing a permit to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that would have allowed the agency to “take” grizzly bears in the Stillwater Core.

In this case, “take” refers to habitat destruction that drives the bears out of their territory. Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species under the Act.

The ruling stems from a case filed in March 2013 by the public-interest environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of three conservation groups — Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

The lawsuit challenged federal approval of a 50-year “take” permit and associated habitat conservation plan that authorized increased road building and logging across approximately 550,000 acres of Montana state lands.

A key feature of the state plan involved elimination of the only unroaded grizzly bear habitat area remaining on Montana state lands. State land managers proposed to build new logging roads into the Stillwater Core but claimed to minimize impacts to grizzly bears by imposing seasonal restrictions on road use and logging.

“A mother grizzly bear trying to raise young cubs needs a wild landscape, not a maze of roads with complicated seasonal closure rules,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who represented conservationists in the case. “Federal officials played fast and loose with the science in claiming otherwise. Fortunately we have courts in this country that require federal officials to make rational decisions and follow the rule of law.”

“This is incredibly important to grizzly bears on the Stillwater State Forest,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “Bears don’t use calendars to know when an area is safe to raise their young and avoid conflicts with people. The court’s ruling ensures that bears get a fair shake.”

The judge’s ruling found that federal officials lacked a rational scientific basis for their decision to approve new road-building in the Stillwater Core based on the state’s plan.

“The Service has not rationally justified its finding that the approach under the Plan constitutes a complete offset — much less a net benefit — such that additional mitigation measures did not even need to be considered,” Molloy ruled. “Absent independent investigation into the impracticability of greater mitigation measures, the Service’s finding that the plan mitigates take of grizzly bears to the maximum extent practicable is arbitrary and capricious.”

While agreeing with the conservation groups about the Stillwater Core issues, the judge upheld federal approval of a different portion of the state plan that authorized increased road construction and logging in habitat for the bull trout, a threatened native fish species.

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