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U.S. Forest Service moving ahead with Black Ram project

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | June 28, 2022 7:00 AM

More than three years after it was announced, the Kootenai National Forest is moving ahead with the Black Ram Project.

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson announced on Tuesday the signing of the decision for the Black Ram Project.

According to the Forest Service, Black Ram is a science-based restoration project located northwest near Troy. The project, which won’t include timber harvest until 2023, is designed to move the landscape toward desired conditions described in the 2015 Forest Plan, including the persistence of old growth and mature trees on the landscape.

While Dan Hottle, Northern Region Press Officer for the U.S. Forest Service, realizes litigation could stop the project in the future, he said “We have to find out how it’s gonna look and how it will look.”

The Forest Service said the project will use ecologically-based treatments, informed by indigenous traditional ecological knowledge to improve forest health and resiliency to fire, insects and disease, and climate change, and to recruit and maintain old growth on the Forest, which is the traditional homelands of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The environmental review analyzed more than 95,000 acres of the approximately 2.2 million-acre forest. Thirty-seven percent of the project area is within the wildland urban interface, where people live in or near forested land.

Forest Service officials opened the project for objections in December 2019 and it has faced criticism from environmental groups which argued it would be detrimental to the grizzly bear population in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

A lawsuit brought on by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies put the project on hold in February 2020. After receiving a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that deemed the Forest Service’s plan “was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear,” officials reopened the project for comment in September 2020.

While groups such as Wild Earth Guardians say there are 20-30 grizzlies “struggling to survive,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bear Management Specialist Kim Annis recently said there are about 60 grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak zone.

Never-the-less, WildEarth Guardians Rewilding Manager, Adam Rissien said, “By authorizing the Black Ram Project, the Forest Service demonstrates it is acting as a rogue agency, using the threat of wildfire to log mature and old growth trees and forests, and further harm threatened grizzly bears.”

Project goals include retaining the largest and healthiest trees to restore and grow resilient stands for the future. Grizzly bear protections will be implemented as well and the project is designed to improve the production of huckleberries, which are a primary food source for bears.

The project is the result of extensive public involvement and government to government consultation with Tribes, the Forest Service said. The Black Ram Project is in Ktunaxa Territory and the project area is critical to the culture and religion of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and greater Ktunaxa Nation.

“The Tribe supports the Black Ram project, because it protects our Ktunaxa resources, furthers restoration of Ktunaxa Territory forests and was developed through our government-to-government relationship with the United States Forest Service,” said Gary Aitken, Jr., Vice-Chairman, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

Project activities include timber harvest, mechanical and hand thinning for fuels reduction, wildlife and aquatic habitat improvement, prescribed burning, stream restoration and trail and recreation improvements.

Less than four percent of the project area will have timber harvest. It will include planting western white pine on more than 2,000 acres with blister rust resistant stock. No harvest will occur until 2023 and only after additional core habitat is secured for grizzly bears.

All treatments within designated old growth areas are designed to maintain and improve old growth characteristics on the landscape, and ensure it persists into the future according to the requirements in the Forest Plan. No harvest of old growth is planned under the project, except if needed for public safety or to address insect or disease hazard.

The Forest will work collaboratively with Tribes, partners, and the public to conduct pre-, during, and post-project monitoring. Treatment outcomes will be monitored for old growth characteristics, archeological resources, soil disturbance, noxious weeds, regeneration, road closure effectiveness, and other resources.

As the Black Ram Project moves into implementation, we look forward to working with all stakeholders and ensuring use of the best available science to create healthy and resilient forests for the future. The Black Ram Final Decision Notice (DN) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is available. The final Environmental Assessment (EA) is also available. The Decision Notice can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52784.