Conservation groups today filed a legal challenge to federal approval of a state forest management plan in Montana that threatens 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, filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging a 50‐year permit given to the State of Montana to log and build roads throughout roughly 548,500 acres of state forest lands in western Montana—activities that the state admits will harm federally protected species. The groups say that the permit fails to include essential protections for bull trout and grizzly bears in some of the last habitat for both species.
“This new plan throws out time‐honored conservation measures for grizzly bears and bull trout and promises a half‐century of harm to these species,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who is representing the groups. “That’s not the management scheme that the Endangered Species Act promises for imperiled wildlife."
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 remaining habitat in the northern Rockies and surrounding lands. Further, Montana’s cold, clean streams contain some of the last prime habitat in the United States for threatened bull trout whose historic range has shrunk by half. Some of the most important bull trout spawning streams are on state lands. Sediment from roads and logging clog their spawning gravels which kills bull trout eggs.
“This new plan for state lands threatens miles of new roads, narrow logging stream buffers and gravel mines in riparian areas that kill bull trout,” 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 “to the maximum extent possible.” 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 already causing the shrinking and warming of streams as snowmelt and precipitation decrease, 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 diseases and new, heat‐tolerant species alter their foraging landscape. Instead of giving these species room to respond to the demands of a changing world, the state’s 50‐year development permit only adds threats and reduces habitat.
“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. “Harming imperiled wildlife is not consistent with Montana’s public trust responsibility for state lands.”