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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge halts Montana logging project over concern for threatened grizzly bears

While the government argues a logging and fuel-thinning project will eventually benefit grizzly bears in the region, a federal judge found harm to the threatened species is inevitable and irreparable.

(CN) — A federal judge in Montana on Monday granted environmental groups’ request to halt the U.S. Forest Service’s planned Knotty Pine project in the Kootenai National Forest, finding the government’s construction and logging project would likely harm threatened grizzly bears near the Montana-Canada border.

The Center for Biological Diversity and four other environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2022 over the approval of a 48,637-acre project in Lincoln County, Montana. The project calls for commercial logging, prescribed burning and pre-commercial thinning and ecosystem and ladder fuel reduction burning.

The project also authorizes several miles of road construction over the next 10 years for what the government says will promote resilient vegetation conditions, reduce risks of wildfires, create sustainable timber products, enhance big game winter conditions and improve wildlife forage habitat.

According to the center’s lawsuit, however, the government’s approval of the project violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Endangered Species Act because agencies failed to analyze the project’s effects on threatened grizzly bears in the area.

In 1975, Fish and Wildlife listed grizzly bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, later enacting a revised grizzly bear recovery plan in 1993 that designated recovery zones in the Kootenai National Forest. The government’s planned Knotty Pine project lies within the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem Recovery Zone and a bear management unit for grizzlies — a slow-recovering species estimated to have reached 50 bears in 2019, according to court records.

In March 2023, the government moved to expedite summary judgment proceedings, alerting the court of plans to resume construction for the project on May 15. The center filed a motion for a preliminary injunction six days later, which was granted by U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen following a hearing on April 19.

“Plaintiff has established a likelihood of irreparable injury absent injunctive relief,” Christensen wrote on Monday, adding federal courts “need not find an extinction threat to a listed species before issuing an injunction under the ESA” and that prior cases have found that harm to listed species is irreparable.

Christensen's order bars the government from starting project activities until the case has been resolved.

“This is excellent news for grizzly bears and everyone who loves the Kootenai National Forest,” said Kristine Akland, Northern Rockies program director at the center, in a statement. “This spectacular forest is home to female grizzly bears who should never be displaced by logging, but especially not in the spring when they’re coming out of hibernation. We’re optimistic that we can stop this destructive project for good.”

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, also celebrated the order.

“Once again, the Forest Service was caught breaking the law because of the ongoing chronic problem of ineffective closures and unauthorized motor access,” Garrity said in a statement. “This is very important since most grizzlies are killed within one-third of a mile from a road and the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population decreased 30% in the last five years.”

The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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