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Groups say timber sale threatens Yaak grizzlies

(Libby Mont.) Western News

(Libby Mont.) Western News

A collection of environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a forest project on the Kootenai Forest that they claim will negatively affect grizzly bears.

The plaintiffs Center for Biological Diversity, Yaak Valley Forest Council, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council submitted the suit against the Forest Service in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

The 44-page complaint alleges that the 56,000-acre Knotty Pine timber sale in a remote area southwest of Yaak will harm the federally-protected grizzly bear population in the area. Specifically, the suit claims that by approving the project, the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The groups are asking the court to either vacate the project decision or enjoin implementation.

The forest Service issued its decision notice for the Knotty Pine sale in March. The project is on the Three Rivers Ranger District and is bound by the Idaho state line to the west, the Kootenai River to the south and the Yaak River to the east.

Logging, including some clearcuts, is slated for about 5,000 acres of the project area, with an estimated 29 million board feet of timber expected. Prescribed burns will occur on 4,700 acres. About 100 acres of harvest and burning will occur in old growth areas.

Approximately 3.7 miles of “undetermined roads” and 2.2 miles of temporary roads will be built, and approximately 35 miles of existing roads would be reconstructed for use. No new permanent roads are approved for the project.

According to the Forest Service decision, the project will improve forest health, reduce wildfire potential within a wildland urban interface area, supply logs to local mills and improve big game winter range conditions. The project also includes improvements to the Cougar Ridge cross-country ski area and a new trail along the Yaak River.

The Forest Service decision notes that according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion issued March 18, the project “is not likely to result in jeopardy to (grizzly bears).”

“Further, the FWS anticipates no mortality of grizzly bears, but rather some low level of effect on the normal reproductive potential and/or feeding patterns of individual female grizzly bears in the area,” the notice cites. “The best information indicates the overall status of the CYE grizzly bear population is stable to increasing.”

In the complaint, however, the conservation groups paint a picture of a fragile grizzly population in the region.

They contend that the logging, prescribed burns and roads approved with the Knotty Pine project are a serious threat to the grizzly population, and that the Forest Service failed to properly address those impacts during the environmental review process.

The complaint notes that the project is within a federally designated grizzly bear recovery area, and claims that the current grizzly population falls below the recovery goal of 100 grizzlies. The most recent count in 2020 puts the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population at 45 bears, the complaint states. That’s fewer than the 50 bears estimated in the area from a 2019 count and the 54 bears in 2018, the complaint notes.

“Thus, for the last three years, FWS has documented a decrease in the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population,” the complaint notes.

The complaint cites a study that contend the Yaak grizzly count is “among the lowest” in the North American interior.

“Roads and clearcutting are some of the biggest threats to this extremely fragile population of grizzly bears,” said Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release issued Tuesday. “Not only did the agencies completely ignore the very real effects of illegal and unauthorized roads on grizzly bears, but they also failed to consider how opening more than 45 miles of roads in grizzly bear habitat will further harm this threatened population.”

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