A federal judge has ruled in favor of conservation groups who sued the U.S. Forest Service to overturn harmful new provisions of the 2018 Flathead National Forest Revised Plan. The judge rejected the plan’s weakened road and culvert management requirements to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species in the forest.
The lawsuit challenged the Forest Service for abandoning key habitat protections for threatened grizzly bears and bull trout. The Flathead National Forest Plan has long required the Forest Service to limit the number of roads and reclaim excess roads in grizzly bear habitat, as well as requiring the agency to fully reclaim other roads — including by removing culverts — to compensate for any new road construction. These requirements have secured important habitat areas for both grizzly bears and bull trout.
However, the Forest Service issued a revised Flathead forest plan in 2018 that repealed these requirements and replaced them with a weaker management framework that opens the door for extensive roadbuilding. Under the revised 2018 plan, the Forest Service would not have to reclaim forest roads that exceed management limits or remove culverts but would only need to place a barrier that blocks or obscures the entrance to the road. Without proper reclamation, the habitat fragmentation and other damage caused by the road continue.
In a ruling issued late yesterday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy agreed with the conservation groups’ challenge to these weakened plan provisions, ruling that the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by ignoring the threat caused by continued unauthorized use of unreclaimed roads and arbitrarily abandoning a commitment to culvert removal.
Earthjustice is representing Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan in the lawsuit.
“Road construction in sensitive habitats is one of the greatest threats to grizzly bears and bull trout. This ruling recognized our key point that leaving a network of unreclaimed roads in the Flathead forest will drive away grizzlies and dump sediment into bull trout habitat,” said Timothy Preso, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies regional office.
Under the lax revised plan, the Forest Service had already planned extensive new roadbuilding in the Flathead Forest. New projects proposed under the revised plan threaten nearly 70 miles of new road construction in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat. By contrast, the Forest Service built only 3.2 miles of new roads in grizzly bear habitat over 14 years under the former, stronger plan.
The judge’s ruling made clear that the new roadbuilding projects proposed under the revised plan will need to undergo a new site-specific Endangered Species Act review while government officials reconsider the rejected plan provisions. This is important for both grizzlies and bull trout. Studies have found that grizzlies avoid road, even those not in use. Roads — even roads closed to human travel — are a major source of harmful sediment in bull trout streams.
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer. “The new Forest Plan attempted to allow unlimited miles of roads to be built in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat by simply not counting them as roads. The prior Forest Plan required that roads be fully reclaimed and their culverts removed to protect both species before being dismissed as roads.”
“The Flathead eliminated the very standards that increased the grizzly bear population and protected bull trout habitat,” said Arlene Montgomery, Program Director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “The Flathead is setting ticking time bombs across the Forest by building more roads and not removing culverts from closed roads. Culverts plug with debris and blow out — dumping tons of sediment into native fish habitat and polluting streams.”
The Flathead National Forest encompasses 2.4 million acres of public land in northwest Montana, including large areas of public land adjacent to Glacier National Park. The Flathead provides key habitat for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzly bears, whose range extends from the Park southward down the spine of the Northern Rockies, as well as a significant stronghold for the region’s threatened bull trout.