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ATVs Threaten Biological ‘Hot Spot’

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - An off-roading plan will transform the geologically unique Pryor Mountains, sacred to the Crow Indians, into a "motorized playground," six environmental groups claim in Federal Court. The mountains in south-central Montana's Custer National Forest are home to 200 bird species and 1,000 species of plants.

The Pryor Mountains is a biological "hot spot," an "island of mountains rising from the prairie," holding ancient and contemporary teepee rings and vision quest sites, the Pryors Coalition says.

The U.S. Forest Service's 2008 travel management plan opens up 99 percent of the area's roads and trails to motorized recreation, and illegally converts "two-tracks" into official routes, the coalition claims.

In addition, the plan allows a 600-foot-wide corridor of dispersed camping along all these routes, which will be particularly hard on plants and soils during the spring thaw.

The mountains about 40 miles south of Billings host many rare and imperiled species, some of which - such as the Pryor Mountain bladderpod - exist only there. The watershed also preserves a "genetically pure" strain of Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Plaintiffs, which include the Beartooth Backcountry Horsemen, a frontier heritage group and two former Forest Service rangers, say the travel plan violates numerous environmental laws by failing to take a hard look at its impacts, not considering a full range of alternatives and not providing any mitigation.

They want to preserve the cultural and natural resources in the mountains for studying, camping, birding, nature photography and nonmotorized recreation.

Represented by Matt Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, the plaintiffs seek injunctive relief preventing off-roading until legal violations have been addressed.

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