Bears vs. snowmobiles

Three environmental groups filed suit last week in U.S. District Court in Missoula against the U.S. Forest Service, continuing a litigious back-and-forth over a salvage logging operation on the Flathead National Forest. But the issue isn't trees—it's how the so-called Moose Post-Fire Project gives snowmobilers access into grizzly bear habitat about 20 miles north of Columbia Falls.

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"It comes down to grizzly bears versus snowmobile use at certain times of the year," says Michael Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan and Alliance for the Wild Rockies charge that the Flathead National Forest violated three core environmental laws in amending a record of decision for the Moose Post-Fire Project in April. Specifically, the groups urge the court to prohibit the agency from retaining 10 culverts in decommissioned roads—culverts that give snowmobilers access to grizzly bear denning areas and that could be detrimental to threatened bull trout.

The crux of the debate is the Flathead National Forest's Amendment 19, which gives standards for protecting grizzly bears and puts their needs above other competing land uses.

"We hope to have the Forest Service actually enforce Amendment 19 to the forest plan," Garrity says, "and they haven't been following it."

The plaintiffs lost their first lawsuit in December 2006. But they appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and in January the court issued a decision requiring the Forest Service to "establish and apply a standard for evaluating when land use values 'compete' with grizzly bears' needs within the meaning of the Forest Plan." The Flathead National Forest did so in its April amendment. The recent lawsuit, then, challenges the Forest Service's method for arriving at the standards, arguing that it lacked public and scientific input.

"The precedent is absolutely important," says Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition, "because if the Forest Service on the Flathead thinks that they can get away with just exempting them from its own management standard whenever it wants to, well so will the Kootenai, so will the Lolo, so will the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, or any other forest, no matter what standards those are. And that's what standards are there for. It's a minimum requirement of what they themselves say they have to do to protect grizzly bears and bull trout and other wildlife and fish."

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