(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must revisit its plan to protect grizzlies from the effects of a Montana logging project, a federal judge has ordered.
At issue is an incidental-take permit that the secretary of the Interior issued through FWS for logging on 548,500 acres of state trust land in western Montana. The project includes increasing the number of roads by about 30 to 40 percent.
Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Environmental Information Center and the Natural Resource Defense Council claimed in a federal complaint that the permit’s issuance relied on a habitat-conservation plan that inadequately protects bull trout and grizzly bears during the planned 15-year long harvest.
FWS did not take a hard enough look at the environmental impacts of such a project, and failed consider alternatives as required under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the complaint.
Granting the challengers partial summary judgment Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula found that the plan does enough to protect bull trout but that the FWS must take another look at its plan for the grizzly bear.
“The service found the measure under the plan to mitigate take of bull trout and grizzly bears to the maximum extent practicable,” he wrote. “Therefore, the Service did not consider additional mitigation measures as they relate to either species. In the case of the bull trout, the service’s determination is supported by record. In the case of grizzly bears, the service failed to rationally justify its conclusions that the plan fully offsets take in light of the record.”
Specifically, Molloy said the plan includes best practices for reducing sediment in bull-trout core area waters by about 62 percent to 79 percent. The plan also includes a 50-foot harvest buffer in riparian areas and “allowance for selective harvest within the buffer zone of individual trees in order to emulate natural disturbance regimes and to address insect and disease infestation,” according to the ruling.
But the plan also calls for the replacement of “secure core” grizzly habitats in the Stillwater and Swan River State Forests with “quiet areas” and “spring management restrictions,” the court found.
That loss of key habitat is expected to result in take of grizzly bears, and it will open previously closed off habitat to humans, thus causing a likely increase in bear-human interaction.
“Absent independent investigation into the impracticability of greater mitigation measures, the service’s finding that the plan mitigates take of grizzly bears to the maximum extent practicable is arbitrary and capricious,” Molloy wrote
He added that the “plan will remain in effect while this matter is on remand with the exception of the portion of the plan that abandons secure core grizzly bear habitat in the Stillwater block.”
“The agency is enjoined from implementing a new management approach regarding grizzly bear habitat in the Stillwater block until the requirements of the ESA are met,” the 31-page decision continues.
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