Environmental groups say Lindbergh Lake logging would harm grizzly bears

The East Side Reservoir Project was planned on Lake Koocanusa outside Libby.

The U.S. Forest Service’a faulty math helped environmental groups win an appeal to halt a logging project near Libby.

Now they’re hoping the same outcome will stop a smaller project near Lindbergh Lake in the Swan Valley.

Last week, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided in part with Alliance for the Wild Rockies and told the Forest Service to redo its math on the East Reservoir Project.

Proposed in 2014, the project would log 8,800 acres – almost 14 square miles – of the Kootenai National Forest on the east side of Lake Koocanusa, 15 miles east of Libby.

Almost half the logged area would be clearcut, as some of the area was in the 1970s.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued in 2015, claiming the Forest Service failed to provide proper protection for threatened Canada lynx and grizzly bears. Specifically, alliance said the agency used biological information that was too old, rather than consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to update its lynx assessment.

AWR also said the Forest Service failed to properly calculate how the project would increase road density in the region.

The Motorized Vehicle Access Act prohibits the Forest Service from increasing the mileage of roads beyond a capped amount in areas harboring grizzly bears. That’s because science has shown the more that roads invade a wild area, the more people come into contact with bears and the greater the likelihood that bears will die, move out or become too comfortable being around people.

Unlike those in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Cabinet-Yaak subpopulation of grizzly bears has struggled to increase. Only 15 were estimated to remain in 1988.

Since 1990, wildlife agencies have transplanted 20 bears into the area but still have a ways to go to meet the minimum population of 100.

In 2016, Missoula U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen didn’t agree with either of AWR’s assertions, so the alliance appealed.

In last week’s Ninth Circuit ruling, Justice Richard Paez reversed Christensen’s ruling on the road-density calculation, saying the Forest Service had tried to justify building 2.2 miles of new permanent roads by eliminating certain unauthorized roads, but hadn’t tallied the total mileage in the affected area to see if it exceeded the cap.

He also criticized the Forest Service for not being forthcoming. Forest Service attorneys had tried to argue that the alliance couldn’t challenge the road-density numbers because the organization hadn’t objected early enough in the process.

“Alliance’s failure to object at an earlier time resulted from the Forest Service’s failure to disclose this aspect in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. It was first revealed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, to which the Alliance promptly objected. In other words, Alliance raised its objection at the first available opportunity, and it is therefore not waived,” Paez wrote.

As to the lynx portion of the challenge, Paez said it was moot because while the lawsuit was underway, the Forest Service had consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition, the FWS started the process to delist the lynx in January, saying a review found the cat probably wouldn’t go extinct, barring climate change effects.

The case now goes back to Christensen, and the Forest Service will need to show that the roads won’t exceed the mileage cap or modify the project.

“This grizzly bear population is less than 50 bears and in really dire straits – the Forest Service can’t just ignore that when it plans massive logging projects in grizzly bear habitat anymore,” said AWR executive director Mike Garrity.

Meanwhile, AWR – along with Friends of the Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition and the Native Ecosystems Council – filed an appeal last week challenging the Beaver Creek logging project near Lindbergh Lake north of Seeley Lake.

Bordering the Mission Mountains Wilderness, the five-year Beaver Creek Project would log 2,900 acres with 1,800 acres of that going to commercial timber sales.

Swan Lake District Ranger Rich Kehr said the biggest driver in the project is wildfire concerns with all the people living around the lake.

Science has shown that a combination of thinning and prescribed burning can reduce wildfire intensity but cannot prevent wildfires.

The environmental groups again argued that the additional roads that would be built next to the wilderness would harm elk, lynx and grizzly bears and violate the road mileage cap.

In addition, they said that the Forest Service didn’t look at the cumulative effect of logging both the Beaver Creek project and the nearby 1,400-acre Glacier Loon project.

On July 16, Christensen again ruled against the alliance, prompting the appeal. He said the Forest Service didn’t need to consider cumulative effects of the two projects because they would be carried out in different years.

Whether the appeals court overturns Christensen again over the road mileage calculation remains to be seen.

But this project attracted more attention after last year’s 156,000-acre Rice Ridge fire. Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte condemned the lawsuit, saying logging projects need to go ahead.

Both are supporting efforts to eliminate the requirement that the Forest Service must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

“We are tired of seeing these catastrophic wildfires. And either we are going to better manage our forests, or the forests are going to manage us,” Daines said during a tour of last year’s Lolo Peak fire.