The Lincoln and Helena ranger districts on the Helena National Forest are considering changing their methods for assessing elk hiding cover after losing logging lawsuits that alleged the federal agency wasn’t in compliance with its own standards.
While those lawsuits did have an impact on the Forest Service discussion, evolving conditions on the ground — wildfires, the mountain pine beetle epidemic, private land ownership and road densities — also contributed to the need for changes in measuring just how secure elk are on the landscape, especially during hunting season, according to Lincoln District Ranger Amber Kamps.
“Does this reduce elk hiding cover? It certainly does not,” Kamps said. “This is just a way to measure it to determine how much (hiding cover) you have, how it would be impacted by our actions, and how to analyze those.”
Pat Shanley, a Lincoln Ranger District wildlife biologist, noted that other forests — the Gallatin, Beaverhead/Deerlodge and Custer — also are looking at changing the definition of elk security within their forest plans.
The federal Forest Service, which manages the habitat, is working closely with state wildlife biologists, who manage the elk, to come up with a standard acceptable to all based on the best possible science.
“The court rulings pushed us into a corner with elk herd units, which is the whole area where an elk may be in the course of a year, including on private land. Incorporating the private land put us over the edge,” Shanley said. “Our standard was being interpreted in a manner it was never intended.”
He noted that the strict, legal interpretation meant that not only were they not in compliance with elk hiding cover standards on the litigated logging proposals, they probably weren’t in compliance in other areas too.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, has successfully sued the Helena and other national forests to stop logging projects based on their not meeting the elk hiding cover standard.
Even without knowing what the proposed standard will be, he’s skeptical as to whether it will create better elk habitat and hiding cover.
“I think it’s something the hunting community deserves to know about,” Garrity said. “Why can’t they just follow their standard? This seems to be typical of the Forest Service — they can’t follow their rule so they decide to change it.
“I think they just want to do more clear cutting in elk habitat.”
Helena Forest officials started talking more than a year ago with the other eastern forests in Montana where elk are prevalent, as well as with FWP, to look at the basic hiding cover need — whether the landscape can conceal 90 percent of an elk from a hunter or other predator that’s 200 feet away.
They currently decide whether that standard is being met in two ways, noted Denise Pengeroth, a wildlife biologist with the Helena forest. They can use satellite imagery for aerial views, and determine if the canopy cover hits the 50 percent or more standard.
The other way is for two people to take a “cover board” or fake elk cutout into the field and literally set it up to check whether 90 percent is hidden from 200 feet away.
“The standards now are a reflection of what was at play in the ’70s and ’80s; the concepts are still new but we want to use information that’s more up to date,” Pengeroth said. “This method that we are trying to move toward is a method that predates the mountain pine beetle outbreak but is still a tool we can use.”
Both she and Lori Wood, the Helena district ranger, declined to explain what the new method will be in their ranger district since they haven’t ironed out all the details. They expect, however, that a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and draft amendment to the forest plan should be ready for public perusal by the end of the year.
Shanley said that in the Lincoln Ranger District they’re looking not just at hiding cover or canopy cover, but security cover to find ways that better benefit elk.
“It’s along the same concept, but we’re looking at habitat of a sufficient size, away from open roads where elk can have that security. Then we need to look at what if the quality of the forage and the cover-age,” Shanley said. “It’s methodology that’s been around for quite some time that other forests have used. We are trying to make the case that what is in the forest plan is not current enough to be a decent means to analyze what’s good for elk.”
He notes that many hunters stick relatively close to roads. So they’re considering a standard that secure habitat typically involves areas larger than 250 acres that are more than half a mile away from a road.
“The level we are trying to achieve is 30 percent of a herd unit will have this,” Shanley said. “So it’s not hiding cover and road ratios that we had in the past; it’s how much habitat of large blocks is removed from roads, providing suitable habitat.”
Currently, the Lincoln Ranger District is putting together the first Blackfoot Travel Plan update since 1986, and the proposal includes numerous changes to roads in the area including closing or seasonal restrictions on about 165 miles of roads.
Kamps said that could help enhance elk habitat, so as part of the travel planning process they’ll also consider inserting a programmatic plan amendment to the Helena National Forest to cover the elk hiding cover standard for the herds in most of the Lincoln Ranger District.
She expects a draft EIS on the travel plan and the elk coverage will be ready for public review and comments in January 2013.
“These are conversations that are taking place across these national forests and with FWP biologists and no decisions have been made,” Kamps added.
Quentin Kujala, the FWP wildlife management section coordinator for FWP said the state sees this as an opportunity to get together, look at changes on the landscape and move forward together.
“It’s good for us to get together and compare notes,” he said.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com
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