A coalition of conservation organizations today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Gallatin National Forest in an effort to force the U.S. Forest Service to limit the damage to wildlife habitat and the danger to wildlife caused by off-road vehicle and late-season snowmobile use. The goal of their planned litigation will be to compel the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze, minimize and mitigate the effects of off-road vehicle use on grizzly bear habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act.
“We don’t want our children to grow up to find that the only grizzly left in the wild is made by Yamaha,” states Sanjay Narayan, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, noting that seven of eleven models of Yamaha’s four-wheeler ORV line are named after threatened forest predators, including the top-of-the-line ‘grizzly’.
Over the last decade, off-road vehicle (ORV) use has escalated across the Gallatin National Forest, including in grizzly bear habitat (and even in the Wilderness Study Area of the Gallatin Range). Four-wheelers, three-wheelers, motorcycles, and snowmobiles are becoming common in every corner of the forest outside of designated Wilderness areas.
While the Gallatin has done little to stem the rising tide of off-road vehicle use, even U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck recently recognized that “growth in [ORV] use carries with it potential for conflicts with others and conflicts with resource management. New and less expensive technology allows people to get to areas previously unreachable to motorized vehicles on National Forests and Grasslands. In the process, unplanned and unauthorized roads and trails may be created, sensitive wildlife habitat disrupted, erosion accelerated, and water quality degraded.”
According to U.S. Forest Service reports, 75% of all Gallatin National Forest trails and 91% of forest trails outside of designated Wilderness are currently open to some form of motorized use. Likewise, the Gallatin contains 14% (or roughly 1 million acres) of all occupied grizzly bear habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; this is the second highest habitat acreage of any national forest in the ecosystem. Undoubtedly, the recent astronomical increase in motorized access on the forest has significant, continual adverse impacts on terrestrial species like grizzly bears and elk that depend upon secure habitat free from human impacts.
Jim Barrett, Executive Director of the Park County Environmental Council in Livingston, acknowledges that, “The use of roads and trails for motorized recreation is an assault on our public lands the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of the gold rush. Increasingly, every nook and cranny of our precious forest and prairie habitats are being invaded and trampled by ORVs and snowmobiles. Our land managers have let us down, and, more importantly, the publics’ wildlife is being lost because our land managers will not stand up for the public estate and manage the land with an eye to the future.”
“ORV use, on and off-trail, hurts grizzlies in much the same way as logging roads do,” states Ed Dobson, a volunteer leader with the Montana Sierra Club’s Headwaters group in Bozeman. “Roads increase the chances for human-bear conflicts, fragment grizzly habitat, and displace bears from the security of the backcountry,” Dobson added.
Jasper Carlton, Executive Director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, maintains: “The failure to implement protective measures on behalf of the Great Bear bodes ill for other threatened and imperiled species such as the lynx, wolverine, fisher, and our native cutthroat trout. Hopefully our actions today will remind agencies that they need to take serious look at ecosystem-wide protections for multiple wildlife species.”
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed the 60-day notice on behalf of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Park County Environmental Coalition, Predator Conservation Alliance, and Sierra Club.