Hunters, Hikers Object|to ‘Treeless’ Elk Habitat

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – The U.S. Forest Service decision to abandon a decades-old law that protects big game habitat and allow “treeless” habitat will hurt elk so badly it will frustrate hunters too, five nonprofit outdoors groups say in court.
     Security Standard 4a, adopted more than 30 years ago, provides “secure” areas for elk and other big game on public land in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Divide landscape, ensuring species have enough vegetative hiding cover during the fall hunting season.
     Big game security can, at times, be controlled with road density and hunting management.
     Security Standard 4a, in part, uses a system of hiding-cover to road-density ratios to achieve its goals.
     Under Standard 4a, the more vegetative cover there is, the more open road density is allowed during hunting season. The less hiding cover, the less road density is allowed, according to the Aug. 25 lawsuit that claims the Forest Service’s March 1 final decision eliminating Standard 4a violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
     “The Service’s decision to eliminate Standard 4a and replace it with a new treeless standard was made in the absence of an environmental and alternatives analysis required by NEPA, conflicts with the best available science on managing for big game security, and is a significant amendment to the Helena Forest Plan that will likely have major negative effects on the amount of vegetative hiding cover and habitat available for big game and other wildlife species on our public lands,” lead plaintiff Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers says in the 21-page complaint.
     More hiding cover during hunting season means elk are less likely to be disturbed by an increase in stress or disturbances, such as hunting traffic, resulting in less exposure to bullets and arrows. Less hiding cover causes more stress, from vulnerability and displacement, in some cases pushing elk to private lands where hunters must ask permission to hunt.
     Other effects when elk lose hiding cover include a decrease in cow-to-bull ratios, disruption of age and sex structure, restriction of genetic selection and reduction of reproduction rates.
     There are other variables that define game security, but Matthew Bishop, attorney for the plaintiffs, says hiding cover is the most critical factor.
     “The most controversial part of the Service’s decision is removal of the hiding component from security,” he told Courthouse News on Monday. “Under the new approach, you could have road density, but no trees on the ground. You can have forest that is clear-cut and still have it be said to be security. Hiding cover has always been part of the equation, but they took that out. They didn’t adequately determine the impacts. More analysis should have been conducted under federal laws.”
     The new security standard also allows “temporary reductions” in security.
     “Under the new standard, motorized use of roads and routes during the hunting season are not considered ‘open’ if such uses are associated with various ‘management activities and projects’ including logging projects, private land access, grazing and allotment management activities, mining and other developments authorized by the Service,” according to the complaint. “The Service does not explain why such ‘administrative’ use is exempt from the security standard and would have no impact on big game security.”
     The plaintiffs say the Forest Service’s decision could have detrimental effects on other national forests.
     “The Service’s decision to eliminate Standard 4a and replace it with a standard sets a precedent for how big game security is defined and managed in other areas of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, other national forests in Montana and other national forests and public lands throughout the west,” the complaint states.
     The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the governmental parent of the Forest Service, could not be reached for comment after business hours Monday.
     Plaintiffs include the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Anaconda Sportsman’s Club, the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, and the Clancy-Unionville Citizens Task Force.
     They ask the court to set aside the decision and remand it to the Forest Service, with instructions to comply with NEPA, the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Forest Management Act.Attorney Bishop is with the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena

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