Portions of a large logging project on U.S. Forest Service ground north of Bonners Ferry will be allowed to move forward, following a settlement agreement reached Thursday over a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, based in Missoula, sued the Forest Service a month ago, claiming the agency failed to fully consider the impact of the 1,242-acre Boundary Creek timber sale on threatened grizzly bears. The Forest Service had planned to use helicopters to log the remote canyon.
The settlement signed Thursday allows ground-based logging to proceed outside lands previously set aside as bear habitat. Before additional logging takes place – the project originally called for 15 million board feet to be harvested over three years – federal scientists must conduct a more thorough review of helicopter logging’s effects on grizzlies, according to the settlement.
Riley Creek Timber Co. was awarded the contract to conduct the harvest, which was expected to yield enough timber to build about 1,000 homes.
Between 40 and 50 grizzly bears live in the region’s Selkirk Mountains, but nearly a quarter of the population has died in the last four years, with three-quarters of the deaths blamed on humans, according to the lawsuit. To help stem the deaths, the federal government has set aside designated bear habitat in portions of the Selkirk Mountains. As part of this program, some 70 miles of forest roads have also been closed.
The logging was also scheduled to take place during times when bears are not likely to be in the area. In an earlier interview, Bonners Ferry District Ranger Mike Herrin said the project has been designed to eventually close additional roads in bear habitat, as well as create forest openings to enhance feeding grounds for the bears.
“The end result is leaving it in a better state for grizzlies than when we went in there,” Herrin said.
But if helicopters were allowed to buzz bear habitat in the logging area for the next three years, the bears will likely flee to other parts of the forest, including places with roads or homes, said Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Because the bears are on “the verge of extinction,” no chances should be taken, Garrity said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service originally agreed with the Forest Service’s assessment that the project is “not likely to adversely affect” grizzly bears. Two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, however, the agency withdrew its support and requested the Forest Service take a closer look at the project’s possible impacts.
Garrity doesn’t expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to sign off on logging in core habitat areas. “I don’t see how they could OK any further harm to (grizzly) habitat,” he said.
Forest Service spokeswoman Gail West said the agency can “live with” the settlement. “We believe the Boundary timber sale is a good one. We’re prepared to go forth on this,” West said.