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Groups sue federal government over revised plan for Helena National Forest

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Helena–Lewis and Clark National Forest Land Management Plan

The Helena–Lewis and Clark National Forest.

A group of wildlife advocates, hunters and anglers have filed a lawsuit against the federal government, saying the U.S. Forest Service erred in its decision to abandon all 10 “crucial wildlife standards” that have guided wildlife habitat management of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest for 30 years when it adopted a revised forest plan in 2021.

“The 10 wildlife standards in the Helena Forest Plan were designed to protect and restore big game habitat and security on the Helena National Forest,” the plaintiffs contend.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, claims the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to do legally required analysis of the effects this decision would have on threatened grizzly bears, Canada lynx, 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 drive management for the next 15 years. The former Helena National Forest and former Lewis and Clark National Forest combined in 2015.

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

And they seek attorneys’ fees and costs.

Listed as plaintiffs are Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Western Watersheds Project, the Sierra Club and Wildearth Guardians. They are all nonprofit groups and are being represented by Western Environmental Law Center.

Defendants are Randy Moore, chief of the U.S. Forest Service and his department; Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and her department; and Deb Haaland, U.S. Interior secretary and her department.

The U.S. Forest Service out of Helena declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the agency does not discuss pending litigation. However, they did note the plan was signed after seven years of coordination with partners and specialists.

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

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

The plaintiffs say the 10 wildlife standards dropped were “based on the best available science, developed with input from state and federal wildlife biologists, and included mandatory forest plan direction to ensure sufficient hiding cover and low open-road densities remained on important elk summer and winter range.’”

“These 10 wildlife standards thus provided important protections for big game habitat and security and benefited other species – including threatened grizzly bears and lynx – who also depend on sufficient hiding cover and low open-road densities.

They said abandoning the standards significantly weakens protections for wildlife such as Canada lynx and grizzly bears.

They said it removes grizzly bear habitat standards in many of the areas in the national forest important for grizzly bear movement and connectivity between grizzly populations in Montana, including the Upper Blackfoot and Divide areas.

The plaintiffs said they filed objections throughout the process.

The previous standards called on the Forest Service to maintain adequate thermal and hiding cover in winter and summer range for big game species; do a hiding cover analysis in all NEPA documents for specific projects; manage summer range on the forest to ensure 35% hiding cover and 25% thermal cover in winter range and protect big game security by ensuring road densities do not exceed numeric limits set forth in a formula depending on the amount of available hiding cover.

The standards also call on the service to follow the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging Study Recommendations; inventory and map all summer/fall/winter ranges; analyze impacts to big-game winter range and protect big horn sheep and mountain goat range and maintain moose habitat.

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

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

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

Joslin said Wednesday "I think the standards are necessary. When you don’t have standards there is no way any kind of oversight will be effective."

"We’re hopeful the court’s logic will agree with us," she said, adding it made no sense to abandon the standards. 

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

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

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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Assistant Editor/Reporter

Phil Drake is the assistant editor and reporter at the Independent Record.

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A U.S. Magistrate has approved a motion by a Helena-based group to intervene in court case filed against the U.S. Forest Service challenging a 2016 travel plan regulating motorized route closures along the Continental Divide.

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