Groups file notice to sue Flathead over Forest plan

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A grizzly bear feeds as snow falls in this file photo. (Chris Peterson photo)

Two environmental groups announced Monday that they have filed a 60-day notice of an intent to file a lawsuit against the Flathead National Forest over its new Forest plan, claiming it violates the Endangered Species Act.

The notice of intent does not come as a surprise — the two groups have previously maintained that new plan doesn’t do enough to secure grizzly bear and bull trout habitat.

They claim the new plan, just days old, is worse than the old 1986 plan because it no longer adheres to a provision in the old plan called Amendment 19. Under Amendment 19 of the previous plan, open road densities across the forest were trimmed substantially. Roads, quite literally, were purposely destroyed by the Forest Service, making them impassable to motorized use.

Amendment 19 came about after two biologists — Rick Mace and Tim Manley’s grizzly bear research in 1993 found that grizzlies were adverse to open roads.

So the Forest Service “decommissioned” about 730 miles of roads over the years, putting in “tank traps” — huge holes that made it all but impossible to trespass on a closed road. They also tore out many of the culverts.

But in order to continue to adhere to Amendment 19, the Forest in the new plan would have had to tear out an additional 500-plus miles of road.

But since the Manley and Mace research and with the road closures that are already in place, grizzly bear populations have rebounded. In the new plan, the Forest tried to strike a balance by providing for grizzly bears, whose populations have swelled in the region to more than 1,000 — with other uses, such as timber harvest, recreation, public safety from wildfires to name a few.

In the new plan, the Forest Service adopted a road management plan that keeps the road density on the Forest at 2011 levels — a year when the grizzly was considered ecologically recovered.

“I’m confident we’ve done a great job for wildlife in the Flathead Forest plan,” Flathead National Forest supervisor Chip Weber said Monday.

He also noted that the same scientists who were doing the grizzly bear research and land management recommendations in 1993 worked on the new plan today. The new plan allows for roads to be gated or blocked, but still remain available for use if need be. Part of the problem with open roads and humans isn’t that bears will not cross or go over roads, but that people run into them and then the bear ends up dead — often from a gunshot.

As far as bull trout were concerned, Weber claimed the problem isn’t habitat on the Forest, but non-native species that, over the years, have out-competed and diminished bull trout populations.

But Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition disagrees.

“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says is helping recover grizzly bears and bull trout,” he said in a release. “It is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call that restoration. We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”

He points to a new proposed plan in the Swan Valley that would add 60 miles of new roads along with timber harvest.

By contrast, the Forest Service built only 3.2 miles of new roads in grizzly bear habitat over 14 years under the former plan, the groups claimed.

But Weber noted that no project has been approved under the new Forest plan and the Swan Valley project was just in the early scoping stages.

The groups also claim that culverts that come with new and old roads ultimately make more harmful sediment runoff and hurt fish populations.

“By abandoning the cap on new roads and eliminating the provisions to remove roads, this new plan harms bull trout and native aquatic life,” Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan said. “When road culverts inevitably fail they dump sediment into streams that will clog spawning beds. The Flathead doesn’t have the budget to maintain its existing road system, so they should be reducing the miles of road on the Forest instead of degrading habitat for wildlife and fish.”

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