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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Five groups sue to block reopening of road bisecting key grizzly habitat in Idaho

In this Sept. 25, 2013 photo, a grizzly bear cub rests near a cabin a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. (Alan Rogers / AP)

Five groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday hoping to block the reopening of a long-closed road bisecting key grizzly bear habitat in the Idaho Selkirks.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Idaho, alleges the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not properly consider how reopening 5.6 miles of the Bog Creek road would affect endangered grizzly bears.

The five groups listed on the suit are the Idaho Conservation League, the Lands Council, the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.

“This project as a whole would be a complete disaster for grizzly bear recovery in Idaho,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The road, a portion of which runs east to west through the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho, was closed in the late 1980s in an effort to protect grizzlies that roam the rugged, wild country between Upper Priest Lake and the Canadian border. However, starting in 2013 the Border Patrol asked the U.S. Forest Service to reopen 5.6 miles of the road, citing “legitimate threats to border security.”

In a previous interview, a Border Patrol spokesman said no particular incident prompted the request to reopen the road. He also noted the road would not be used during the winter and that agents won’t be going “back and forth on it.”

The Border Patrol operates a station at Metaline Falls responsible for patrolling east of Bog Creek Road. As it stands now, agents have to drive about three hours if they need to go from the Metaline station eastward.

In early February, after years of back and forth, the Forest Service and Border Patrol released the Final Record of Decision on the project. Construction on the Bog Creek Road, which is overgrown and washed out, is set to start this year. To mitigate any impacts the road would have on grizzly habitat, the Forest Service said it would close a number of other roads.

However, the suit alleges five of the six roads selected by the Forest Service are already overgrown and impassable.

“If you’re a grizzly bear you actually don’t see any difference on the ground,” said Brad Smith, the North Idaho director for ICL.

Additionally, the suit argues the Forest Service is violating its own grizzly recovery rules by not closing the six other roads at the same time, or before, they start work on Bog Creek. Santarsiere said the road closures wouldn’t go into effect for a year or two, while work on Bog Creek would start this year.

Finally, the Forest Service and Border Patrol didn’t “take a hard look at the impact on grizzly bears under the National Environmental Policy Act,” Santarsiere said. In particular, they failed to estimate the number of female grizzly bears or cubs in the project area.

A spokesperson for the Forest Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although the Bog Creek Road is relatively short, it bisects an important chunk of grizzly habitat – the Blue-Grass Unit. About 25% of all grizzly sightings in the Selkirks have occurred in this unit, Smith said. And, the Bog Creek Road is the only U.S. road that crosses the Selkirk Mountains east to west north of Sandpoint.

Numerous studies have shown grizzly bears die more frequently near roads and avoid them when they can.

“This recovery zone actually extends into Canada,” Smith said. “And connectivity north of the border is really important for recovery on the U.S. side.”

The Forest Service and Border Patrol have 60 days to respond to the complaint. Most likely a briefing with the court will happen this summer, Santarsiere said.

However, she is “strongly considering” filing a preliminary injunction to temporarily stop any road work.