A federal judge on Friday approved a settlement between conservation groups and state officials that will protect more than 22,000 acres of grizzly bear habitat while still allowing logging in two state forests north of Whitefish.
The settlement, initially approved by the state Land Board on Aug. 29, creates restrictions designed to minimize disturbances to grizzly bears in seven “security zones” totaling 34 square miles in the Stillwater and Coal Creek state forests, north of Whitefish.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy approved the final settlement on Oct. 9.
The agreement resolves a lawsuit filed in 2013 by Friends of the Wild Swan, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This agreement ensures protection for the last, best grizzly bear habitat remaining on state lands in Montana,” said Timothy Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented the groups in negotiating the agreement.
Under the settlement, 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. The state also would avoid or minimize helicopter flights over the zones.
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 weakened existing protections for threatened species’ habitat within the forests, which are part of the larger Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) that is a grizzly bear stronghold.
Judge Molloy ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service’s analysis of the state’s plan fell short of what is required by 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.
In approving the settlement, Molloy lifted that injunction.
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