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Federal judge halts Ripley logging project, orders Forest Service to do more work

by Darrell Ehrlick Daily Montanan
| July 7, 2023 7:00 AM

A federal judge has ruled that the United States Forest Service failed to adequately analyze the effects of a large logging project on grizzly bears and lynx in northwestern Montana, and ordered the agency to complete more work, halting the project until those analyses are completed.

Judge Dana L. Christensen upheld a federal magistrate’s order that halted the Ripley logging project in the Kootenai National Forest. The project slated about 25,000 acres for “treatment” or various logging activity, including new roads and the likely disturbance of grizzly bear habitat.

Christensen said that the U.S. Forest Service had failed to consider several key items that federal law required, including properly analyzing the project’s impact on an imperiled group of grizzly bears.

In the order, Christensen said that the agencies, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, had “failed to conduct a lawful cumulative effects analysis because they did not analyze state and private activities in the project area.” That project area is approximately 29,180 acres in size, according to court documents, and will last as long as 25 years.

The site is home to grizzly bears and located approximately two miles from the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone. Three different radio-collared male grizzlies have been recorded in the area during the past seven years.

With more roads being planned for the project and evidence of bears living there, Christensen said that the group challenging the project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, had proven the United States Forest Service had failed to take a hard look at how the changes, especially the roads, which are known to disrupt grizzlies, will affect the species.

Neither the Forest Service nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comment on pending litigation.

Christensen pointed out that analyses by both agencies said that the Ripley Project “may affect and is likely to adversely affect the grizzly bear.”

In addition to that, the court ruling said, the Forest Service failed to take into account the impact of grizzly habitat that would happen on the private land which is part of the project and the public land together.

“Failing to analyze how private and state roads in the project area could affect bears’ ability to move between secure habitat located in the project area constituted a failure to adequately consider the cumulative effects under the Endangered Species Act,” the judge wrote.

Meanwhile, the federal agency wrote that the record demonstrates it considered how the logging project would affect the grizzlies, but court remained unconvinced.

“The court and the public should not have to embark on a scavenger hunt through a nearly 30,000 page administrative record to find information that the biological opinion itself was supposed to disclose,” Christensen wrote.

Both Christensen and Magistrate judge Kathleen DeSoto wrote that Forest Service had also failed to analyze whether the project would impact the endangered Canada lynx.

In previous court documents, the USFS claimed that it would not have to conduct a review of lynx because they have not been present in the area, but offered no proof to support the statement.

“The federal agencies’ argument puts the cart before the horse,” the order said. “Because (the Forest Service) did not follow the statutorily mandated procedure and provide documents in the administrative record substantiating their assertion that Canada lynx would not be affected by the project, the court cannot be assured that this is a harmless technical error.”

Alliance for The Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity cheered the ruling, saying the courts have stood up for a particularly vulnerable set of grizzlies, and stopped a project that would have cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Roads pose the biggest threat to grizzly bears, followed by logging and habitat removal. And the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population in particular is in bad shape,” Garrity said. “The most recent actual count of grizzlies (published in 2021 for the 2020 monitoring year) for this population is 45 bears. The prior year counted 50 bears, and the year before that counted 54 bears. However, the government’s own Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan requires 100 bears for the minimum viable population.”