The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Montana, asks a federal judge to invalidate the new road plan and to require the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to devise a new plan in light of scientific research documenting grizzly bear habitat needs.
"The grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and the Selkirks are at a cross roads," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso. "If we act now to protect and restore their habitat, they stand a fighting chance at survival."
The lawsuit challenges the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service's approval of new road standards that will apply in habitat for the struggling Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly bear populations, each numbering only about 40 bears. The agency decisions, issued between April 2001 and March 2004, allow the Kootenai, Lolo, Idaho Panhandle and Colville National Forests to maintain a network of more than 20,000 miles of forest roads.
The existing road network has contributed to poaching and killing of numerous grizzly bears that were mistaken for black bears resulting in a decline in the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population. With the proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines in the Cabinet Mountains also looming as threats, the federal government has admitted that both the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly populations deserve the strongest legal protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act. Nevertheless, the challenged plan actually allows the Forest Service to build roads into some of the best remaining grizzly bear habitat in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk regions.
"Under the current situation, both the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly populations are warranted for endangered listing, both are suffering excessive mortalities, and both have populations too small to be viable," said Brian Peck of the Great Bear Foundation. "If we actually degrade the bears' habitat further, these populations haven't got a prayer."
"Unless we turn things around in a hurry, our generation will preside over the extinction of the grizzly bear in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk regions," added Mark Sprengel of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. "We have laws to prevent that, but they don't mean anything if they aren't enforced. That's why we are in court."
The groups represented in the lawsuit include Cabinet Resource Group, Great Bear Foundation, Idaho Conservation League, Natural Resources Defense Council and Selkirk Conservation Alliance.