Lawsuit challenges trail route through Yaak

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A view of the Cabinet/Yaak area facing north, toward the Yaak Valley in Lincoln County. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

The small population of grizzly bears in the Yaak Valley rarely encounters humans or their influences, according to Rick Bass, an acclaimed writer and conservationist long associated with the Yaak.

Bass and others, including grizzly advocate Doug Peacock and the Yaak Valley Forest Council, would like to keep it that way.

On Aug. 23, the Yaak Valley Forest Council filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service “on behalf of the Yaak Valley’s last 25 grizzly bears.” The council contends the Forest Service has failed to adequately assess the impacts of the Pacific Northwest Trail’s route through designated core grizzly habitat in the Yaak.

And the nonprofit organization asks the court to stop the Forest Service from promoting through-hikes on the trail until the agency has complied with consultation and planning requirements outlined by law.

Bass, who is chairman of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, has said the route’s current location “is pretty much a giant train wreck.”

The council and others favor a route south of the Kootenai River that would allow through-hikers to get provisions in Libby and Troy. This alternative would include a section of a trail route once championed by the late Charles Jonkel, a legendary bear biologist in Montana.

The lawsuit points out the Forest Service never completed a Comprehensive Management Plan required by the congressional legislation authorizing the trail as a National Scenic Trail in 2009.

Bass noted “the agency is obligated by Congress to conduct and provide for the public a comprehensive plan. One has not been provided.”

The suit notes also that the Forest Service has failed to establish an advisory council related to the Pacific Northwest Trail.

In early July, Cheryl Probert, then interim Forest Supervisor for the Kootenai National Forest, said that the Kootenai Forest Plan was guiding the forest’s management of the trail.

She said the Forest Service is working to renew the expired charter for an advisory council for the Pacific Northwest Trail and said the agency will consult with this group “as part of the broader planning effort to prepare the legislatively required comprehensive plan for the PNT.”

This week, neither Region 1 nor Region 6 of the Forest Service responded to requests for comment about the lawsuit or the agency’s timetable for preparing a Comprehensive Management Plan.

The Pacific Northwest Trail is a 1,200-mile path from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean at Olympic National Park. It travels through Montana, Idaho and Washington and through seven national forests, including the Flathead National Forest and Kootenai National Forest.

According to the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the trail “is mostly unmarked, receives light use, and may not have been recently maintained in some remote areas. Be aware that in some locations, the route of the PNT requires bushwhacking through dense forest, following climbers’ scrambling routes, and sometimes follows networks of unsigned and confusing forest roads.”

The association reports about 80 percent of the trail is on federal land.

“Generally speaking, the navigation challenges on the Pacific Northwest Trail are not to be taken lightly; they require more skill than is needed to follow the longer-established National Scenic Trails...For now, as an end-to-end adventure, the PNT appeals to experienced outdoors people looking to test advanced skills as they immerse themselves in the natural world,” the association observes.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council said about 27 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail in the Kootenai National Forest currently travel along Forest Service roads or highways, a reality that does not comply with the National Scenic Trails Act and would likely eventually require relocation.

Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said the Comprehensive Management Plan would, among other things, determine a “carrying capacity” for the trail. The phrase “carrying capacity” can refer to the maximum amount of human use beyond which resource deterioration or human crowding is likely to occur.

The council said the carrying capacity of the Pacific Northwest Trail through the Yaak must “consider the effects of increased human use on grizzly bears, their core habitats and human-bear interaction.”

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association has reported about 100 people attempted end-to-end treks of the trail in 2017.

“Many more people visit the PNT for shorter trips, either as ‘section hikers’ who complete all 1,200 miles over multiple years, or as day or overnight hikers on a shorter portion of the trail,” the association said.

King noted the Forest Service is eight years out of compliance with the law requiring a management plan for the trail.

“We see this injunction as a way to get the process moving again,” she said.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council “wants what’s best for hikers, bears and Montana,” she said.

Bass said he is “not opposed to the fundamental utility” of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

“I also have great respect for hikers, drawn to the beauty of the natural world that sustains so many of us, including myself — but a population of 25 grizzlies is just too small, and the species — the second-slowest reproducing land mammal in North America — too important to ignore the science and the need for a comprehensive plan,” Bass observed.

The council and others have described the Yaak as key habitat for grizzly bear recovery.

King said the southern route proposed by the council would still provide a scenic hike, would “pass through the stunning Kootenai River valley, along the Cabinet mountains and into the Salish range” while avoiding core grizzly habitat.

Peacock, a Green Beret medic in Vietnam who found healing by observing and documenting grizzlies in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, later wrote “Grizzly Years” about those experiences.

In a blog post, he expressed opposition to the current route of the Pacific Northwest Trail through the Yaak.

“I happen to like grizzly bears and eventually cramming 4,000 or more hikers per year through this tiny corridor will destroy the Yaak grizzly population; encounters along the trail are inevitable and almost always settled with the bear losing her life,” Peacock wrote.

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