It took a lawsuit from local conservationists, but the Flathead National Forest has agreed to obey the law and remove a portable bridge that would have funneled snowmobiles and ATVs into grizzly habitat as the bears are emerging from their dens in the northern Swan Mountains.
The agency issued a special permit for the 8-foot-wide steel bridge to the Flathead Snowmobile Association in November. In its lawsuit, the Swan View Coalition pointed out that the bridge would allow motorized access into a wildlife habitat that’s supposed to be secured beginning March 15 of each year. The lawsuit also noted that there was no public planning process for the bridge as required by law.
The Forest Service quickly agreed to remove the bridge. It’s buried under 6 feet of snow at the moment, so barricades have been thrown up to block access until the bridge can be taken down. Under its permit, the snowmobile club was supposed to remove the bridge, but not until early summer.
The Swan View Coalition’s Keith Hammer says the Forest Service knew it would land in court by issuing the bridge permit but intentionally did it anyway as part of a political blame game.
“The Forest Service knows it has no business promoting snowmobiling after March 15, it knows it has no business providing a bridge leading to a network of unauthorized ATV trails, and it knows it must do its planning in public,” Hammer says. “The Forest Service intentionally took a shortcut it knew would land them in federal court in a lame attempt to shift the blame for motorized closures to the conservation community.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Germann denied his accusation. “That’s interesting,” she said, “but I don’t believe that’s the case.”
Research conducted in the Lost Johnny area and elsewhere has shown that grizzlies with cubs are especially vulnerable to motorized disturbance during the weeks they remain lethargic and near their dens, which can occur as early as March and as late as June.