Montana Public Radio

Lawsuit Over Logging Road Closures In Grizzly Habitat Could Impact Timber Projects

Dec 11, 2019

A legal battle over whether temporary logging roads in grizzly bear habitat are effectively being closed may put a damper on logging projects in three national forests. The case may be headed for an appeal.

A federal judge in Missoula this fall ordered the U.S. Forest Service to take a closer look at how temporary logging roads are still being used by motor vehicles. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the federal government under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year claiming traffic on those roads is harming grizzly bear habitat on the Kootenai National Forest. 

Executive Director Mike Garrity says the environmental group hired researchers to examine motorized use of roads closed via earthen berms on the Kootenai.

“They found lots of cases where the road closures were not working, where people had driven over or around or through them and so because of that, they were not in compliance with the forest plan,” he says.

Garrity’s group also issued letters of intent to file similar lawsuits over 100 individual commercial and non-commercial projects on the Kootenai, Lolo and Idaho Panhandle national forests.

“And as a remedy, we wanted them to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on how they can reduce the biggest threats to grizzly bears, which was roads,” he says.

The federal court ordered the U.S. Forest Service to consult with federal wildlife managers in order to determine how successful its road closures are in grizzly bear habitat in both the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak recovery zones, both of which touch the Kootenai, Lolo and Idaho Panhandle forests.

Garrity says the Forest Service will need to find a way to effectively close roads.

“And if they can’t, then they have to reduce the amount of roads they’re building,” he says.

The Forest Service filed an appeal in the case last week, but that may just be a placeholder.

In a series of letters last month, the Forest Service said it was complying with the court order by consulting with federal wildlife managers on 37 active commercial and non-commercial projects in the Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle national forests. The Forest Service says no active projects in the Lolo would be impacted by the case. The assessment will determine how many roads in those forests may be violating road density rules.

Fifteen of the projects in question are commercial timber sales, one which has been halted. In an emailed statement, the Forest Service says it’s still assessing whether action needs to be taken on the other sales.

“I’m perplexed by the decision. It doesn’t bode well for the industry,” says Julia Altemus with the Montana Wood Products Association 

In an interview shortly before the Forest Service began its assessment in November, Altemus said she not only feared that the ruling could stymie active timber sales, but also limit future projects that require road building.

“Hopefully we can find a positive resolution quickly and this doesn’t take a year or two to get through it, which these grizzly bear and road issues can take that long,” she says.

That will ultimately depend on if the Forest Service moves forward with its appeal, how many closed roads it finds may still be in use and whether it can find an effective way to close them for good.