Despite the government shutdown, U.S. Forest Service supervisors last week signed a new management plan for the Flathead National Forest, along with amendments that standardize grizzly bear management for the Lolo, Kootenai and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests.
The plan, more than five years in the making, covers aspects of forest management from timber harvest to wilderness areas to mountain biking. Forest Supervisor Chip Weber says the groundwork for the announcement was put into place before the government shut down, and represents the culmination of years of groundwork with a variety of groups, individuals and companies.
"It provides the sideboards for how the forest will be managed for the next 15 to 20 years."
The Flathead makes up a large part of what’s known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, an area home to the largest population of grizzlies in the Lower 48. Weber says the plan - along with amendments to the Lolo, Kootenai and Helena-Lewis and Clark plans - plays a crucial role in dictating how the area’s expanding population of bears will be managed.
"How is the bear population gonna be protected when it’s delisted on Forest Service lands?"
Federal officials have said they believe bears in the area have recovered, and in order to remove federal protections, measures must be in place to show the bear won’t once again face extinction.
However, some environmental organizations claim those measures don’t go far enough. Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan, says the Flathead’s new plan weakens previous measures that governed building and reclaiming roads.
"It really kind of takes a lot of the teeth out of what was in the current forest plan."
Montgomery also says the plan allows culverts to stay in unused forest roads. Those culverts clog, causing water to wash sediment over the tops of the roads, and down into sensitive bull trout habitat.
"What’s discouraging with this is that we’re taking a step backward," Montgomery says.
But Forest Supervisor Chip Weber says in terms of grizzly bears, the latest science begs to differ.
"What we know today is that it really is open road densities that matter to grizzly bears."
This means that grizzlies might be sensitive to roads with vehicles actively rumbling down them. But old roads, closed off to traffic, don’t have much of an effect.
The new Flathead National Forest plan goes into effect 30 days from December 27. The bear management amendments in the four other national forests were implemented immediately.