What a Country

What is the point of this exercise? To save grizzly bears? Not really – after all, satellite-collar tracks in the Swan pretty much prove seasonal access management works pretty well.

By Dave Skinner

Well, it seems U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy is still with us – issuing another court ruling closing down active logging work in the Stillwater State Forest.

According to a press release from Earthjustice, the suit was brought in March 2013. On behalf of Montana Environmental Information Center, Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Wild Swan, Tim Preso of Earthjustice sued against an “incidental take permit” issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2011 to the state of Montana. These permits are needed for so-called Habitat Conservation Plans created to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Had Greens won all five points of their complaint, the entire Habitat Conservation Plan for 550,000 acres of state trust lands, not just the so-called “Stillwater Block,” could have been blown out of the water. However, Judge Molloy rejected “four and a half” of the five counts.

Statewide, the permit was OK on bull trout, OK on taking the “hard look” on impacts, presented a reasonable range of action options, even considered “climate change.” Hey, 90 percent should be a passing grade, right?

Well, after dismissing all other allegations, Judge Molloy ended up ordering the entire habitat conservation plan to remain in effect, closing down only “the portion of the Plan that abandons secure core grizzly habitat in the Stillwater Block” until “the analysis required by 16 U.S.C. § 1539(a)(2)(B)(ii) as it relates to grizzly bears” is conducted and completed.

That analysis won’t be limited to the Stillwater, but needs to be conducted on all state trust lands – that’ll be expensive, slow, and could result in yet another Molloy bombshell later on.

So, on the 36,700 Stillwater acres, the immediate fallout is at least three logging sides shut down, at least $3 million worth of yellow iron not generating income to make the payments, and at least 15 hardworking Montanans on their butts for the duration, again with payments to make and families to feed.

And, in reaction to statewide supply problems, which Earthjustice’s lawsuit clearly aimed to make much worse, Stoltze announced the termination of another 10 or so workers. Happy days for them, too. As I write this, Plum Creek just announced an hours cut (from 40 to 36) for 100 workers at Columbia Falls, based at least partly on the loss of the Stillwater wood.

What is the point of this exercise? To save grizzly bears? Not really – after all, satellite-collar tracks in the Swan pretty much prove seasonal access management works pretty well. But let’s pretend untouched land is the only way female bears can propagate successfully. So – how many bears are being saved – and what does it really cost to save them?

According to the University of Montana, the home range of a female grizzly is, translated to acres, 32,000 to 96,000 acres. A 1997 paper by FWP biologists Rick Mace and John Waller gives a home range for Swan Range grizzly females (those road-running, logging-unit tramping hussies) of between 11,366 to 67,212 acres, with some overlap.

So at most, the Stillwater block is home to three breeding bears, or two, or one. On average, probably one-and-a-half.

Now, pretend you offered to buy this land to protect that bear and a half. Because it has not been roaded or logged, there’s probably a good bit of wood on it, say two grand an acre. Hmmm, that’s $73 million or so. At three bears a pop, the up-front cost of “saving” each bear is $21 million each. At a capital service benchmark of 6 percent, the annual cost per three bears, per year each, is $1.468 million a year, $4.04 million total.

If that was your money, would you pay? Yes? Then the Land Board and school trusts would be happy to take your check.

Do you think Earthjustice, with $38 million in income and a $21 million payroll (2012), or NRDC ($97 million revenues, $46 million payroll) might ante up? Of course not. Why should they, when the law allows them a reliable means of sticking others with irrational, unbearable costs?

What a country.

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