A new lawsuit contends that the U.S. Forest Service erred when it excluded a 13,500-acre Elkhorn Mountains project for further environmental analysis.
Native Ecosystems Council and Montana Ecosystem Defense Council filed the lawsuit in federal court in Missoula over the Johnny Crow Habitat Improvement Project located about 10 miles from Townsend.
Intended to mirror historic wildfires, the project includes prescribed burning along with noncommercial cutting and slash burning of small trees. The project also aims to reduce encroachment of conifers into traditional grasslands, increasing tree-age diversity and promoting forage for wildlife, according to Forest Service documents.
In March, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest issued a “categorical exclusion” and announced it would proceed with the project. A categorical exclusion exempts the agency from completing an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment for certain actions determined to not significantly impact the environment.
The Johnny Crow categorical exclusion cites timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement that does not include herbicides nor require more than one mile of road construction.
The lawsuit argues that use of a categorical exclusion is inappropriate and the Forest Service should have completed further environmental analysis. Specifically, the councils contend that the agency must consider cumulative impacts of the project in whole with other projects. They also question the validity of the fire science used and note that elk numbers are already within state objectives.
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“The Forest Service calls this a wildlife improvement project and claims it qualifies for a “Categorical Exclusion” to exempt it from normal and legally-required environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act,” Steve Kelly, co-director of the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council, said in a statement. “But the elk numbers in the Elkhorns are already meeting Montana’s elk population goals and the area is one of the most sought after hunting districts in the entire state.”
“We oppose the inappropriate use of the Categorical Exclusion, which would effectively illegally amend the Helena Forest Plan,” he said. “Simply put, the decision to expand grasslands in the Elkhorns will benefit cattle at the expense of important wildlife habitat provided by shrubs and conifers in the ecotones, which are the wildlife rich transition zones between forests and grasslands.”
The Elkhorns are the only congressionally designated wildlife management unit in the Forest Service system, and is cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Bureau of Land Management. All projects in the Elkhorns must focus on the sustainability and improvement of wildlife and habitat.
“This project is solely focused on creating healthy and resilient forest conditions for wildlife habitat,” Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. “It was developed at the request of and using collaborative input from our partners, who helped us design much of the project. It’s disappointing that these two groups, who didn’t participate in the collaborative process, are now litigating to stop this project from being implemented.”
The lawsuit asks the court to halt the project and award attorney fees and other costs.