(CN) – The U.S. Forest Service’s plan to spray herbicide from helicopters over the Kootenai National Forest does not adquately consider the effects on grizzly bears, which typically flee from low-flying planes, a federal judge in Montana ruled.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula barred the agency from aerial spraying in the 2.2 million-acre forest in northwest Montana until it properly examines how the plan would affect the endangered bears.
In the underlying lawsuit, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies argued that multiple flights over the forest might lead the roughly 35 grizzlies living in the area to abandon their habitat.
The group cited a 2006 Forest Service biological assessment, which stated that grizzlies “have been noted to panic and flee areas from over-flights in nearly all cases where they have been observed.”
The agency conceded that the low-altitude flights would likely displace the bears temporarily, but said the plan would not have an “adverse effect” on the grizzlies.
Molloy sided with the environmental group, concluding that the Forest Service “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in determining that aerial spraying … is not likely to adversely affect the grizzly bear.”
His ruling adopts the recommendations of Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch, who said the plan “clearly authorizes helicopter use that is low-altitude, high frequency, and of potentially extended duration.” He pointed out that, according to the Forest Service’s own guidance document, such use would likely have an adverse effect.
The agency countered that the document “should not be thought of as a ‘cook book’ or ‘one size fits all’ approach.”
Judge Molloy ordered the Forest Service to consider the frequency of flights and how they might affect grizzly bears. But he ruled for the Forest Service on all other aspects of the plan, including proposed spraying from the ground. Molloy also rejected the environmental group’s claims that the herbicide 2,4-D would harm people in the Libby, Mont., area and would ruin the habitat of migratory songbirds.
The noxious weed-control plan would allow ground spraying of up to 45,000 acres of forest and aerial spraying of up to 35,000 acres, to be completed in yearly increments of 6,000 acres over 15 years. Two-thirds of the annual spraying would be from the ground and a third from the air. The Forest Service said aerial spraying would be reserved for severe weed infestations.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based environmental group, said he was pleased with the ruling, but thought the judge should have ordered the Forest Service to consider the effects of spraying on people, not just bears.