Groups threaten to sue over new forest plan

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Late autumn color highlights a view of Flathead National Forest along Highway 35 near Creston on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Two regionally based conservation groups allege the Flathead National Forest has abandoned key protections for grizzly bears and bull trout and the organizations say they’re prepared, as a result, to sue two federal agencies.

On Monday, the Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan announced they had notified the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of plans to file a lawsuit if changes aren’t made to the recently adopted Forest Land Management Plan for the Flathead National Forest.

The groups cited what they believe are illegal provisions of the new management plan that could have negative impacts on grizzly bears and bull trout and thereby violate the Endangered Species Act. They gave the Forest Service 60 days to “correct their legal violations.” Grizzlies in the Lower 48 and bull trout are listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, said he thinks “litigation is highly likely.”

Among other concerns, the coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan object to the forest plan’s renunciation of an amendment that was designed to decommission hundreds of miles of existing roads through closures, re-vegetation and culvert removal and limit construction of new roads.

“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says is helping recover grizzly bears and bull trout,” said Hammer. “It is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call that restoration.”

Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan, said the Forest Service’s abandonment of Amendment 19 and a cap on new roads and plans to decommission existing roads imperil bull trout.

Montgomery said road culverts inevitably fail and dump sediment into spawning beds for bull trout. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says bull trout need clean spawning and rearing gravel.

Chip Weber, forest supervisor for the Flathead National Forest, countered by noting the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem has rebounded and continues to expand in numbers and territory even with the existing road network in the forest.

He said the new forest plan does an excellent job of providing for a robust population of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Flathead National Forest.

Population estimates suggest there are about 1,000 grizzly bears in that ecosystem and there has been some preparation for the possible de-listing of the grizzly bear in the NCDE.

Hammer said de-listing would be a mistake.

“We need a much more robust population here,” he said, along with evidence of a connection between grizzlies in the NCDE and grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to promote genetic diversity.

Hammer said research has demonstrated that roads displace grizzly bears.

Weber said the new forest plan “basically holds in place habitat conditions that were on the ground in 2011” and noted the grizzly population has continued to rebound with current road densities on the forest.

Yet Hammer said Flathead County’s human population, estimated to be about 100,000, also continues to grow, and he said the growing population is putting more pressure on recreational resources and grizzly bears.

In the forest plan’s Record of Decision, Weber observed the new plan does not incorporate road-related guidelines of Amendment 19, which called for reduction of motorized route densities.

“Given the improved condition of NCDE grizzly bear population and its habitat, I find it is not necessary to further reduce public access by about 518 miles,” Weber wrote.

Weber said Tuesday he believes the new forest management plan provides strong habitat protections for both grizzly bears and bull trout.

He said the Flathead National Forest tends to have excellent habitat for bull trout and that non-native species pose the greatest threat to the fish.

Weber declined to comment specifically about the notice of intent to sue by the Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan. The notice was filed Feb. 8 on the organizations’ behalf by Josh Purtle, an associate attorney for Earthjustice.

Purtle wrote that the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have violated the Endangered Species Act “by arbitrarily dismissing the threat to grizzly bears and bull trout posed by road building and the proliferation of human use of roads and trails permitted under the revised Flathead National Forest Plan.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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