Another lawsuit to challenge Forest plan

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A grizzly bear in the Great Bear Wilderness.

Two environmental groups have filed suit against the Forest Service and other federal agencies claiming the new Flathead National Forest plan doesn’t do enough to protect grizzly bears and bull trout.

The suit, filed by Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition, claims road rules under the new plan reverse a decades-old policy that closed roads in the 2.4 million-acre Forest.

The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the two groups.

It also names the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It claims that the new Forest plan is in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Under longstanding Flathead National Forest Plan direction, the Forest Service was required to limit the number of roads and to reclaim excess roads in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat. Further, the Forest Service was required to compensate for any new roads it built by fully reclaiming other roads in the Forest according to stringent measures, thus ensuring no net increase in the total number of roads in the Flathead,” the suit notes.

The road closures came under Amendment 19 of the old Flathead Forest plan. Under Amendment 19, the Forest closed about 700 miles of road on the Forest. If it had continued to adhere to those standards under the new plan, it would have closed an additional 500 miles of roads. The suit looks to force the Forest to adhere to the Amendment 19 road standards.

But instead, the new plan looks to keep total road densities at 2011 levels — the levels where grizzly bears were deemed to be biologically recovered. Most biologists agree the grizzly bear in this region is recovered and is now expanding to places bears haven’t roamed for more than 100 years.

Grizzlies are now found on the high plains of central Montana as they follow the river systems to the east. It’s estimated there are about 1,000 grizzly bears in this region. At their lowest levels, there were less than 200 when the bears were listed in the 1970s.

But the new road policy under the Forest plan threatens that recovery, the groups claim.

“... the revised plan moved the goal posts on what is required to ‘reclaim’ a road,” the complaint claims. “Under the revised plan, the Forest Service can build new roads throughout much of the Forest, as long as it ‘reclaims’ other roads by placing a minimal barrier that blocks or obscures the entrances of those roads. Thus, roads purportedly ‘reclaimed’ under the Revised Forest Plan may remain on the landscape indefinitely, causing long- lasting harm to threatened species. This permissive new management direction is a far cry from former requirements, which demanded that a road be treated such that the road would ‘no longer function as a road’ before it could be considered reclaimed, and new roads could be built elsewhere in the Forest.”

As a case in point, the groups point to a proposed project in the Swan Valley that would build 60 more miles of roads as part of a timber project in a valley that is already heavily roaded.

But the Forest service noted that the project is still in the early planning stages and the project could very well be changed.

The Forest Service says it has a solid plan that will ensure grizzly bear and bull trout recovery will continue.

“We believe we have an outstanding plan for ecosystems, people and wildlife. We understand people disagree and we’ll work our way through it,” spokeswoman Janette Turk said in an email to the Hungry Horse News Tuesday.

The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the two groups.

It also names the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It claims that the new Forest plan is in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

This is the second lawsuit challenging the plan in as many weeks. Another suit by the WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project makes similar arguments.

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