Conservation groups notified U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of their intent to bring a legal challenge to federal approval of a forest development plan in Montana that will likely harm grizzly bears and bull trout. Both species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Natural Resources Defense Council, represented by Earthjustice, are challenging a 50-year permit given to the State of Montana to log and build roads on state forests lands in western Montana, activities that the state admits would harm federally protected species. The groups say that the permit fails to include essential protections for bull trout and grizzly bears.
“Instead of insisting on the strongest protections for bull trout and grizzly bears, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved Montana’s plan to build 1,100 miles of new roads, delay essential remedial actions on existing roads, allow logging immediately adjacent to bull trout streams, and diminish secure core habitat protections for grizzly bears over 39,600 acres,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine.
Wild lands of western Montana contain some of the last prime habitat in the United States for threatened grizzly bears and bull trout. Bull trout require cold, clean, water. Sediment from roads and logging clog their spawning gravels which kills bull trout eggs. Montana’s cold, clean streams provide critical habitat for bull trout whose historic range has shrunk by half. Some of the most important bull trout spawning streams are on state lands.
Further, Western Montana still has large stretches of mountain-and-meadow land, making it one of the last remaining strongholds in the lower-48 for grizzly bears, which once ranged south into Mexico and west to the Pacific, but today occupy only a few, isolated segments of usable habitat in the northern Rockies and surrounding lands.
“The miles of new roads, narrow logging stream buffers and gravel mines in riparian areas are detrimental to bull trout’s survival and recovery,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “This is a habitat destruction plan, not a habitat conservation plan.”
The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to ensure that its permit issuance to Montana’s Department Natural Resource and Conservation “is not likely to jeopardize” listed species’ survival. It restrains USFWS from approving a permit until Montana demonstrates that it will mitigate the impacts of its harm to the protected species. The permit given to Montana fails both of these requirements.
As USFWS acknowledges, the harm caused by Montana’s proposed logging and road-building are in addition to the significant new and expanding threats that bull trout and grizzly bears face from ongoing climate change. Global warming is likely to cause the shrinking and warming of streams as snowmelt and precipitation decrease, ambient air warms, and tree cover dwindles. As cold-water habitat disappears, bull trout will become even more scarce and isolated. Grizzlies, meanwhile, will be forced to search out new food sources as expanding pathogens and new, heat-tolerant species alter their foraging landscape. Instead of giving these species room to respond to the demands of a warming climate, the state’s 50-year development permit only adds stressors and constrains habitat options.
“At a critical moment when grizzlies and bull trout need maximum flexibility, the Fish and Wildlife Service has locked in a regime for the next 50 years that will shrink and degrade crucial remaining habitat for these sensitive species,” said Kyla Maki with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Their approval of DNRC’s action clearly violates the ESA.”
The notice letter sent by the conservation groups states that if the Fish and Wildlife Service does not take action within 60 days to remedy the legal violations, the groups intend to bring claims under both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act challenging USFWS’s actions in federal district court.