"The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations are the most imperiled grizzly bears in the lower-48 states, yet under the Forest Service's plan they received the least protective habitat standards of any grizzlies in the lower-48 states," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who represented five conservation groups (see header) in the lawsuit. "Road standards in national forests surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, both home to much larger grizzly populations, are far more stringent than the road standards that the Forest Service applied to these struggling populations. That makes no sense, and we are pleased the judge sent the Forest Service back to the drawing board."
Today's ruling addressed a March 2004 decision by the Forest Service setting road standards for the portions of the Kootenai, Lolo, and Idaho Panhandle National Forests within the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly bear recovery zones. The Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk populations each number only about 40 bears, and each has suffered high human-caused mortalities in recent years related to an 8,500-mile system of old logging roads. Yet the Forest Service's road plan promised only minor changes in the status quo, and even allowed new road-building in some of the best remaining grizzly bear habitat in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk regions.
The Forest Service based its plan on a study by Idaho state biologist Wayne Wakkinen and federal biologist Wayne Kasworm documenting that six female grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk regions used more heavily roaded habitats than female grizzlies studied in the nearby Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. But Wakkinen and Kasworm admitted that they did not know whether the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly bears had any better habitat options in their heavily roaded environments, and numerous other biologists have voiced concerns about relying on the Wakkinen-Kasworm study results, especially given that two of the six studied bears were killed by humans.
In today's ruling, Chief Judge Molloy found that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act because the agency's environmental impact statement for the new road plan failed to wrestle with these unanswered questions before it adopted the Wakkinen-Kasworm study as the template for grizzly bear habitat management.
"Given the statements of the Wakkinen authors, the misgivings of other biologists about the range of habitat choices available to the bears, and the ongoing mortality problems in these populations, there can be no reasoned choice among alternatives and no accurate prediction of the impact of the proposed action until the Forest Service has assessed the importance of the missing information," the judge wrote in today's decision.
The judge's ruling requires the Forest Service to prepare a new environmental impact statement to reconsider its road plan in light of the uncertain scientific information.
"The judge pinpointed the questions we have been raising about the government's science for years," said Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Under the current situation, both the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk grizzly populations are critically endangered; both are suffering excessive mortalities; and both have populations too small to be viable. 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. "Today's decision gives these bears a fighting chance, if only the Forest Service will finally face up to the task of sustaining these populations."
Earthjustice represented Cabinet Resource Group, Great Bear Foundation, Idaho Conservation League, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Selkirk Conservation Alliance in this case.
Read the court decision (PDF)