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Tenmile Wildlife Priorities

The proposed U.S. Forest Service Tenmile-South Helena Project would have the most impact on habitat for Canada lynx and elk, with some effects to grizzly bears and low impacts to moose and wolverines, agency biologists told a collaborative on Wednesday.

Forest Service biologists Brent Costain and Denise Pengeroth presented a wildlife analysis addressing the project's potential effects to species and habitats, to the Tenmile-South Helena Collaborative. Wildlife and habitat were organized into high priority, meaning those most affected by the project, followed by medium and low priorities. The designations do not necessarily indicate negative impacts but whether the project will have effects based on how species use the area.

The Forest Service proposed the project last year, which would include logging and prescribed burning in sections of a 60,000 acre project area. After taking public comment, the agency began preparing a new alternative it plans to introduce in a draft environmental impact statement anticipated this spring.

The project area includes lynx and grizzly bears listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, along with sensitive species such as wolverines and boreal toads.

Research into lynx shows an importance of diverse types of habitat, Pengeroth said. Dense smaller trees provide habitat for snowshoe hares, the cat’s main food source, while larger and more mature trees offer denning areas, she said.

The project incorporates “patterns” in vegetation providing long term benefits to lynx habitat with possible short term negatives, Pengeroth said.

Elk are also classified as a high priority species primarily for changes to spring, summer and fall cover and security habitat during hunting seasons. The Forest Service has proposed designating large blocks of land away from roads as elk security areas, departing from an elk hiding cover standard. Managers want to maintain as much hiding cover for elk as possible under new requirements, but beetle kill has caused significant losses across the project area, Costain said.

Given the diversity of all the habitat types, wetlands, dry and open forests, remnant green forests and dead wood could see higher impacts along with associated wildlife, Pengeroth said.

Grizzly bears received a medium priority along with mule deer and goshawk. The Continental Divide as a wildlife linkage corridor also received a medium priority.

“Grizzly bears are pretty minimal (impacts) and maybe more on them moving through the project area,” Pengeroth said. “What’s ruining goshawk habitat is the beetle kill. Thinning out the stands will improve where goshawks are nesting.”

What the collaborative members found most surprising were low priority ratings for moose and wolverines. Wolverines were recently a candidate but denied a federal listing as threatened or endangered.

The proposed listing was due to anticipated depletion of high mountain snowpack due to climate change, and the project would have no impact on snow persistence, Costain said.

“Wolverines are habitat generalists in a lot of ways and pretty versatile and opportunistic,” he said. “The areas that hold on to snow late in the year are the ones we have to protect.”

Moose were abundant but populations were unknown, he said. Project provisions maintain cover around marshy areas for moose habitat, although mapping of those areas was not complete, he added.

The Tenmile-South Helena Project came largely through recommendations from the original Tenmile Collaborative, said the Forest Service’s Marshall Thompson. The Forest Service was looking for any new recommendations from the current collaborative based on ground condition changes in the last six years, along with any support of the original recommendations, he added.

The draft environmental impact statement anticipated for late April or early May will be followed by a 45-day public comment period. A fourth alternative could very likely come after the public has a chance to weigh in again, Thompson said.

In other collaborative business, members elected an executive committee. School board member and local Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation chapter president Joe Cohenour will chair the collaborative. Retired EPA hydrologist Mike Bishop and Baxendale Fire Chief Jordan Alexander were elected vice co-chairs.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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