Helicopters hauling logs out of North Idaho’s grizzly bear country threaten the bears almost as much as using logging trucks, according to a lawsuit filed this week in federal court by environmentalists seeking to block a large logging project north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The Boundary Creek timber sale was scheduled to begin later this month in a remote canyon near the Canadian border. The area is considered some of the best remaining habitat in the Selkirk Mountains for one of the nation’s most imperiled populations of grizzlies.
The U.S. Forest Service had hoped to minimize impacts to the bears by using helicopters rather than trucks to haul logs off most of the 1,242-acre project. Most of the timber sale is slated to take place in federally designated core grizzly bear habitat, according to the lawsuit.
Motorized use is restricted in these areas in an attempt to protect bears, said Liz Sedler, a Sandpoint resident and member of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington. If helicopters are allowed to buzz bear habitat for the next three years, the bears will likely flee to other parts of the forest, including places with roads or homes.
“That’s how bears get killed,” Sedler said.
Between 40 and 50 grizzly bears are believed to still roam the Selkirk Mountains, but 12 are known to have died in the past four years. According to the lawsuit, roughly three-quarters of recent grizzly deaths in the Selkirks were human-caused.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, of Missoula, claims the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to fully consider the impacts of helicopter logging on grizzlies. The bears are listed as threatened with extinction by the Endangered Species Act.
Bonners Ferry district ranger Mike Herrin said scientists “followed the process to the T” in designing the project to ensure it complied with federal laws and had the least impact possible on bears.
Motorized access might be restricted around federally designated core grizzly habitat, but helicopter logging is allowed, Herrin said.
The work was also planned so that logging would not take place in springtime when bears are known to roam the area.
Sedler scoffed at the notion: “If helicopter logging isn’t motorized access, I don’t know what is. … It just seems so absurd.”
Herrin stressed that the Forest Service has closed some 70 miles of forest roads in the bear habitat area in recent years. This has added an additional 3,500 acres of designated core grizzly habitat. Even more roads will be closed by the time the project is completed.
“After this project is done, we’re going to have an increase in the number of acres of core habitat,” Herrin said. “The end result is leaving it in a better state for grizzlies than when we went in there.”
Thinning the trees is also expected to create more huckleberry patches for the bears, said Herrin, who previously worked as a wildlife biologist. “It’s going to be darn good grizzly bear habitat.”
Sedler’s response: “That’s just the company line. They always say that. They’re going to take a tremendous amount of timber from those areas. That’s not good.”
The project is expected to last at least three years and produce 15 million board feet of timber, which is enough to build about 1,000 homes.