Federal court rejects crucial aspects of revised forest plan for Flathead National Forest

For Release: Friday, June 25, 2021
Contacts:
Marla Fox, WildEarth Guardians, (651) 434-7737, mfox@wildearthguardians.org
Jocelyn Leroux, Western Watersheds Project, (406) 960-4164, jocelyn@westernwatersheds.org
Kelly Nokes, Western Environmental Law Center (575) 613-8051, nokes@westernlaw.org

MISSOULA, Mont. – A federal district court yesterday rejected crucial aspects of the revised forest plan for the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana for failing to adequately assess conservation needs for threatened grizzly bears and bull trout.

Specifically, the court faulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion on the U.S. Forest Service’s revised forest plan, finding it violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court also rejected the Forest Service’s reliance on this improper analysis.

The court faulted the agencies’ analysis of road standards that could be used to green-light increased road construction and logging in grizzly bear habitat for least the next 15 years, and likely much longer.

Although the court did not vacate the forest plan, the judge noted that “any project under the Revised Plan would have to be examined individually; if the project impacted roads, grizzly bears, or bull trout, the project would require a site-specific consultation and a biological assessment with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

“Even though roads pose one of the greatest threats to grizzly bears and their habitats, the Forest Service eliminated prior road standards that were more protective, proven effective, and supported by best available science,” said Marla Fox, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “So, we are very happy that the court agreed with us that the federal agencies fell short on their ESA duties. But it is unfortunate that the revised forest plan is allowed to remain in place, because it means destructive logging and road building will continue to harm grizzly bears and bull trout while the agencies try to fix the flaws. Guardians and our allies will obviously remain vigilant in defense of these threatened species and the habitat they need to survive.”

“The court agreed that the Flathead National Forest Plan didn’t adequately consider its effects on grizzlies or bull trout,” said Jocelyn Leroux, Montana director of Western Watersheds Project. “With all the compounding threats to these species – climate stress, livestock grazing, increased recreation and logging – it’s critical that the agency go back and protect these animals with the full consideration of the Endangered Species Act. We’re pleased that the court has directed the agency to go back to the drawing board and do better.”

“The court correctly rejected the federal government’s latest attempt to undermine the recovery of threatened grizzly bears in this key region that is so essential to the species’ overall recovery,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Grizzly bears are not yet recovered across their historic range and the essential habitat provided by the Flathead National Forest cannot be allowed to be degraded by roads and the threats such development poses to the true recovery of this iconic species. The Forest Service can – and must – do more to protect key grizzly bear habitat on the Flathead.”

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Key quotes from the court’s opinion, include:

The agencies “failed to explain the decision to abandon Amendment 19’s road reclamation requirements in light of evidence that such abandonment would pose risks to grizzly bears and bull trout populations and bull trout habitat. Federal Defendants also failed to consider the impacts of the Revised Plan on the grizzly population as a whole, failed to explain their decision to implement 2011 access conditions, and implemented a flawed grizzly bear take statement…” “Because the 2017 [biological opinion] identified use management as the primary method of protecting grizzly bear habitat, which in turn maintains and protects grizzly bear populations . . . the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to consider the effect of ineffective road closures was arbitrary and capricious.”

“The scientific evidence does not support the Revised Plan’s shift away from mandatory culvert removal, particularly since the Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed culvert removal as one of the most effective bull trout protection tools just two years prior to the 2017 [biological opinion].”

“The mere fact that the [NCDE] population was increasing from 2004-2011 does not justify moving away from the existing management requirements of Amendment 19. In effect, by recognizing that Amendment 19 laid the foundation for recovery of the NCDE population and then using that recovery as justification for getting rid of the existing access conditions, the Fish
and Wildlife Service eschews Amendment 19 precisely because it was working. This action is arbitrary and capricious.”

Related to the incidental take statement surrogate, “the trigger suffers from a fundamental flaw that the Service cannot elude with these standards. The [biological opinion] acknowledges that 32 of the 47 subunits in the Forest do not meet the 19-19-68 benchmarks. FWS-002067. Given that the [biological opinion] indicates that ‘some level of incidental take will occur’ when the 19- 19-68 benchmarks are not met, FWS-002067, as Plaintiffs note, ‘[i]t is especially unclear how the benchmarks provide a clear trigger for the thirty-two subunits that already exceed one or more of the benchmarks.’”

BACKGROUND: The Flathead National Forest in northwestern Montana is a crown jewel of America’s public lands. Bordering Glacier National Park and Canada, the national forest contains some of the most intact wildlands and free-flowing rivers in the country and is a key part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The Flathead is a refuge for many imperiled species—including grizzly bears, Canada lynx, gray wolves, wolverine, and bull trout. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service’s revised Forest Plan, which will guide all future forest activities for the next 15 years or more, is prioritizing resource extraction activities that destroy habitats and disturb wildlife—industrial logging, road building, motorized wreckreation, and livestock grazing.

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