Kootenai National Forest Places Hold on Sprawling Logging Project in the Yaak

Conservation groups say wildlife protection measures surrounding Black Ram project were insufficient in critical grizzly bear recovery zone

By Tristan Scott
The Yaak Valley. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight

Kootenai National Forest officials this week placed a hold on the 95,000-acre Black Ram logging project in the Yaak Valley near Troy, canceling an objection period to their environmental assessment that last year found the sprawling timber harvest posed no significant impact to the timber-rich ecosystem or the threatened population of grizzly bears it supports.

The move to suspend the objection process, which Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson announced in a Feb. 18 letter to commenters, was seen as a boon by conservation groups who argued the proposed logging project shouldn’t move forward because it does not include effective safeguards to protect the region’s fragile grizzly population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, which includes a federally designated grizzly bear recovery zone.

The proposed project area encompasses 95,412 acres and includes commercial harvest on 4,038 acres, as well as non-harvest fuel treatment on 7,553 acres. It calls for building 3.3 miles of permanent roads and 0.2 miles of temporary roads; constructing fuel breaks on 76 acres; maintenance work on 90 miles of existing roads; and decommission work on 23 miles of road.

“The Kootenai National Forest’s assessment acknowledged that this project is ‘likely to adversely affect’ grizzly bears. Yet the U.S. Forest Service also claimed that 2,000 acres of regeneration harvests, many in critical core habitat, won’t affect bears significantly, and that Yaak grizzlies have no need for deeper analysis,” Rick Bass, the author, Yaak resident and board chair of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said. “We disagree.”

Bass and other opponents of the proposal say the Kootenai National Forest should conduct a deeper analysis and release an environmental impact statement, rather than rely on the less stringent formula of an environmental assessment.

Although Benson does not explain the decision to cancel the objection period in his written notice, and in a statement to the Beacon merely said it had been placed on hold and will be reinstated at a later date, Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, explained that a 2019 federal court decision surrounding his group’s lawsuit over a separate but adjacent timber project found that road closures were ineffective to protect the declining population of grizzly bears.

That lawsuit, which his group filed in an effort to halt the Pilgrim Creek Timber Sale, argued the project violated the Kootenai National Forest’s own access amendments, and that the miles of road tracking through grizzly habitat ostensibly closed to motorized use should be included in the agency’s calculation of linear road miles.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and other groups mounted a similar case in its objection to the Black Ram timber project.

“In a nutshell, the Federal District Court ruled that the Forest Service road closures were ineffective to protect the declining population of grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem and until the agency remedies the problem, no new road building can occur,” Garrity said. “The Forest Service contended that if it puts a berm on an existing road it’s considered effectively closed to motorized traffic. We showed the court that people were driving not only on the supposedly closed roads but also on illegal roads in grizzly bear habitat. The court ruled in our favor last October and ordered the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on their ineffective road closures in Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear habitat where the proposed Black Ram project is located and that’s what the agency has to do.”

The environmental assessment for the Black Ram project northwest of Yaak called for over 10 square miles of logging, with 4,431 acres of clearcuts in the Kootenai National Forest.

“The Kootenai National Forest presumed no motorized access would occur behind berms in grizzly bear habitat but that assumption has been proven false,” Garrity said.

As noted by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on Oct. 3, 2019: “The record shows chronic deviations from the effective closures envisioned in the Biological Opinion.”

“Roads are the major source of grizzly bear mortality,” Garrity continued. “In its 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cautioned that ‘roads probably pose the most imminent threat to grizzly habitat today.’  That’s why the Forest Service has restrictions on the total number of roads in grizzly bear habitat since most grizzlies are illegally killed within 500 yards of a road.”

Researchers conducted a survey of berm-closure effectiveness in the Kootenai National Forest in 2017, according to court documents, and discovered numerous berms that failed to effectively prevent motorized access.

“Simply put, the Forest Service assumed closed roads are not open to motorized use,” Garrity said. “But photographs showed people were driving over and around the berms.”

In the Black Ram project, the Forest Service wanted to build 3.5 miles of new roads and 90.3 miles of road reconstruction/maintenance. The Draft Decision Notice also authorized 2 miles of “undetermined” roads to be added to the inventory.

“Because the berms on closed roads are not effective at preventing motorized access, the Alliance asked the Forest Service how they were going to keep the dwindling population of grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak region from going extinct,” Garrity said.

Molloy found in the Pilgrim Creek Timber Sale case that “the continued uncertainty as to the scope of illegal use weighs in favor of Alliance” and ordered the Forest Service to fully account for the linear miles of non-closed roads in the area. Molloy also ruled that if the agency is going to count a road as closed, it must make the closure completely impassable to motorized vehicles.

“The Forest Service was still in violation of the court’s order with the Black Ram logging project draft decision so they had no choice but to withdraw the decision,” according to Garrity.

“Obviously the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service aren’t doing their job to recover the grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak since there are only about half the number of bears considered necessary to prevent inbreeding and recovery of this isolated population,” Garrity concluded. “The Court agreed with us and ordered the Forest Service to re-consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and issue a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Until this is done, road-building in Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear habitat must stop and logging projects like Black Ram cannot go forward.”

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