Federal judge stops Flathead forest plan because it doesn't protect grizzly bears

Federal Judge Dana Christensen has halted the implementation of the Flathead National Forest’s forest plan for approximately 2.4 million acres due to the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to consider the impact of roads on endangered species, specifically grizzly bears and bull trout. In his decision, Judge Christensen noted that the Forest Service continues to disregard the effects of closed roads and unauthorized motor vehicle use on these species’ habitats.

The ruling is reminiscent of several recent cases centering on grizzly bears and roads. The U.S. Forest Service, which typically refrains from commenting on ongoing litigation, has been criticized for not addressing roads that have been abandoned but remain accessible. According to the U.S. District Court’s order, these roads are still being used, even if illegally, because they have not been permanently closed and returned to a natural or impassable state.

Although Judge Christensen did not completely halt the entire plan, as the challenging groups, the Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Swan, had requested, he did prevent the plan from going into effect until the Forest Service rectifies it. The Flathead National Forest is home to five federally designated threatened species—bull trout, grizzly bear, Canada lynx, scalding’s campion, and meltwater lednian stonefly—as well as one proposed species, white bark pine, and one candidate species, the monarch butterfly.

The court’s decision mandates that the U.S. Forest Service provide a comprehensive discussion of motorized vehicle use, including unauthorized use. The court also states that the Forest Service cannot ignore information demonstrating the problem, even if it deems the matter challenging to control. This means that the Forest Service will likely need to either address the issue of unauthorized motorized use in the plan or explain how such use will not adversely affect endangered species.

Judge Christensen and Magistrate Kathleen DeSoto have both criticized the Forest Service for excluding the issues of road density, as the agency characterized the grizzly population as “robust” and argued that the challenges of tracking illegal use are “spatially disparate and temporary.” The court has previously dismissed these arguments, stating that unauthorized motorized use and its effects are permanent, not temporary.

Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision, stating, “We are pleased to see the courts once again confirm that, as long as roads exist on the landscape, whether open or closed to motorized use, they are a threat to grizzly bears and bull trout. A truly sustainable logging program would not require ever more roads into ever more pristine forests.”

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