MISSOULA -- Grizzly bears should have secure ways to move between state and federal forests on Glacier National Park’s western edge under an agreement reached in a 3-year-old legal fight.
The Montana Land Board unanimously approved a settlement on Monday with three conservation groups that restores core grizzly security areas in the Coal Creek and Stillwater state forests north of Whitefish.
The forests border a large swath of Flathead National Forest along the Whitefish Range. That’s also part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem for grizzly bears.
The agreement sets limits on human activity on about 22,000 acres spread across seven zones of the two state forests. It prohibits permanent roads, restricts logging to times when the bears are hibernating for the winter and limits helicopter flights over the zones.
The Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Environmental Information Center and Natural Resources Defense Council in 2013 challenged a recommendation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eliminate the bears’ security areas from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation habitat conservation plan for the area.
The federal agency must sign off on such plans because of the grizzly’s status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
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 ESA. 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.
“This is less acreage than the previous plan, but we got some really important areas for grizzlies that connects Forest Service and state lands for the bears,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “It covers a lot of avalanche chutes and riparian areas that are good bear habitat, and also good places for lynx and wolverine.”
The previous agreement included about 36,000 acres, according to Montgomery. If approved by Molloy, the new agreement would be in place for the remaining 47 years of the state’s habitat conservation plan authority.
Now that the Land Board has approved the settlement, the federal agency and conservation groups plan to file court documents seeking to dismiss the appeals and lift Molloy's injunction.
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 is surrounded by the Kootenai and Flathead national forests. The Coal Creek forest is west of the North Fork of the Flathead River and is surrounded by the Flathead National Forest.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.