HELENA — The state Land Board on Monday approved a proposed lawsuit settlement between Montana and three conservation groups that would protect grizzly bears while still allowing logging in two state forests west of Glacier National Park.
The settlement would create restrictions designed to minimize disturbances to grizzly bears in seven “security zones” totaling 34 square miles within the Stillwater and Coal Creek state forests.
If a federal judge approves the settlement, six timber projects that have been on hold for a year will be allowed to go forward, said Sonya Germann, forest management bureau chief for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Forest’s trust land management division.
Under the agreement, no permanent roads would be built in the security zones. Logging would be barred except when bears are in their dens for winter, and then only below an elevation of 6,300 feet. Motorized activities would not be allowed when the bears are out of their dens, and the state would avoid or minimize helicopter flights over the zones.
The state also would accelerate its plans to identify and fix culverts and problem areas along existing roads that threaten bull trout habitat with sediment, according to the proposed agreement.
The proposal would settle a lawsuit filed in 2013 by Friends of the Wild Swan, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The groups challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2012 approval of the state’s Habitat Conservation Plan covering 856 square miles of state trust land in western Montana.
They complained the state’s plan would weaken existing protections for threatened species’ habitat within the forests, which are part of the larger Continental Divide ecosystem that is a grizzly bear stronghold.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service’s analysis of the state’s plan fell short of what is required in the U.S. Endangered Species Act. He ordered an injunction last year that prevented Montana from carrying out its habitat conservation plan in the two state forests, but allowed the plan to be implemented in other areas.
Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the conservation groups appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and had been in settlement negotiations since March.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who presides over the Land Board, said the resulting agreement means “a win-win for the wildlife, the habitat, the timber interests and for the trust which this board oversees.”
The Stillwater forest is the state’s oldest and largest at 145 square miles, and it is surrounded by the Kootenai and Flathead national forests. The Coal Creek forest is west of the North Fork of the Flathead River and surrounded by the Flathead National Forest.
“It’s really important bear dispersal area,” said Arlene Montgomery of the Friends of the Wild Swan. “What we tried to do was make sure connectivity between national forest lands and state lands so the bears could continue to move through those areas without impediment.”
Now that the Land Board has approved the settlement, the federal agency and the conservation groups plan to file court documents seeking to dismiss the appeals and lift Molloy’s injunction.