Groups Sue Feds Over Revised Helena National Forest Plan | Crime and courts

A group of wildlife advocates, hunters and anglers has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming the US Forest Service erred in its decision to drop 10 “critical standards for Wildlife” that have guided wildlife habitat management at Helena-Lewis and Clark National. Forest for 30 years when it adopted a revised forest plan in 2021.

“The Helena Forest Plan’s 10 Wildlife Standards were designed to protect and restore big game habitat and safety in the Helena National Forest,” the plaintiffs say.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Tuesday, claims the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to conduct the legally required analysis of the effects the move would have on endangered grizzly bears, lynx of Canada and big game species, including elk.

In October, the Forest Service signed a Final Record of Decision approving a revised forest plan for the 2.6 million Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest to guide management for the next 15 years. Old Helena National Forest and Old Lewis and Clark National Forest combined in 2015.

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The plaintiffs want the court to find that the defendants violated the law, leave the Helena National Forest portion of the revised forest plan, and have the plan comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and to the Endangered Species Act.

And they claim costs and attorney fees.

The plaintiffs are Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Western Watersheds Project, the Sierra Club and Wildearth Guardians. They are all non-profit groups and are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center.

The defendants are Randy Moore, head of the US Forest Service and its department; Martha Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and its department; and Deb Haaland, US Secretary of the Interior and her department.

Helena’s US Forest Service declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the agency does not discuss ongoing litigation. However, they noted that the plan was signed after seven years of coordination with partners and specialists.

Wildlife habitat was considered one of the most controversial elements of the plan.

The standards became difficult and in some cases impossible to meet, said then forestry supervisor Bill Avey, due to changes on the ground such as high insect mortality in the forest. He said the new plan uses “safety zones”, defined as blocks of habitat away from roads and guidelines, rather than standards, for tree cover. Avey said the changes provide the agency with more flexibility as land use or ecology changes, he said.

Plaintiffs say the 10 abandoned wildlife standards were “based on the best available science, developed with input from state and federal wildlife biologists, and included mandatory forestry plan guidelines to ensure sufficient hidden cover.” and low densities of open roads. wintering area.’”

“These 10 wildlife standards have thus provided important protections for big game habitat and safety and benefited other species – including grizzly bears and endangered lynx – which also depend on sufficient cover and low densities of open roads.

They said dropping the standards significantly weakens protections for wildlife like Canada lynx and grizzly bears.

They said this removes grizzly bear habitat standards in many areas of the National Forest important to grizzly bear movement and connectivity between grizzly bear populations in Montana, including the Upper Blackfoot and Divide areas.

The plaintiffs said they filed objections throughout the process.

Previous standards called on the Forest Service to maintain adequate winter and summer cover and thermal cover for big game species; perform hidden coverage analysis in all NEPA documents for specific projects; manage the summer range on the forest to ensure 35% concealed cover and 25% thermal cover in the winter range and protect the safety of big game by ensuring road densities do not exceed numerical limits established in a formula based on the amount of hidden coverage available.

The standards also require the service to follow the recommendations of the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging study; inventory and map all the summer/autumn/winter ranges; analyze impacts on big game winter range and protect bighorn sheep and mountain goat range and maintain moose habitat.

Helena Hunters and Anglers members have been engaged in the Helena portion of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest since the original forest plan was written in 1986, said Helena Hunters and Anglers board member Gayle Joslin. and retired wildlife biologist. Release.

She said the previous plan’s standards were based on peer-reviewed science.

“The intent is clearly to pre-empt the public’s ability to hold the Forest Service accountable for its actions,” she said.

Joslin said Wednesday “I think standards are necessary. When you don’t have standards, there’s no effective means of control.”

“We hope the court’s logic will agree with us,” she said, adding that it didn’t make sense to drop the standards.

Kelly Nokes, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a news release that hidden cover and road density have huge implications for endangered grizzly bears, as well as big game, including elk.

“This major migration artery for grizzly bears is crucial for their recovery. The Biden Forest Service’s dodging proper analysis to inform its decision to trash 30 years of successful forest and wildlife policy is beyond disappointment — and it violates the Endangered Species Act.

Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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