Groups sue to protect threatened grizzly bears, bull trout in Flathead National Forest

Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion failed to consider full impacts of road development and use


Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, (202) 792-6211

Keith Hammer, Swan View Coalition, (406) 253-6536

Arlene Montgomery, Friends of the Wild Swan, (406) 886-2011

Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition filed suit in U.S. District Court in Montana today targeting a 2018 U.S. Forest Service plan that allows for significant new roadbuilding in the Flathead National Forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) biological opinion greenlighting the plan failed to consider the full impact of road development and road use on federally protected grizzly bears and bull trout. The groups are represented by Earthjustice.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service again brushed under the rug serious threats to Endangered Species Act-protected grizzly bears and bull trout, paving the way for a new wave of road construction and logging projects in the Flathead National Forest,” said Benjamin Scrimshaw, associate attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office. “Roads displace grizzly bears and harm bull trout by delivering harmful sediment to their streams.”

Grizzly bears have learned to avoid roads — even closed roads — and are often displaced from habitat that features them. Closed roads in the Northern Rockies also receive significant unauthorized use, including trespass by motorized vehicles. Roads and road use also increase sediment in bull trout streams, reducing survival of eggs and embryos, clogging gills, and raising water temperatures in critical habitat for these cold-water fish.

In 1995, recognizing these impacts to grizzly bears, the Forest Service implemented a forest plan amendment that set road density limits throughout the Flathead National Forest’s grizzly bear habitat. To meet those limits, the Forest Service was obligated to offset new road construction in grizzly bear habitat by reclaiming existing roads according to stringent requirements that included the removal of culverts to protect fish. The 2018 revised Flathead Forest Plan abandoned that road density commitment through sleight of hand, allowing the Forest Service to build new roads in grizzly bear habitat without counting them in total road density, if a minimal barrier was put across the entrance of the road, such as fallen trees or boulders. This new framework allows for unlimited roadbuilding, and risks significant unauthorized motorized use of closed roads in formerly secure grizzly bear habitat.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Keith Hammer, chair of Swan View Coalition. “The impacts of roads don’t go away simply because the agencies don’t count those roads in total road density. Fish and Wildlife Service squandered an opportunity to set the record straight by not requiring what gets put on paper to match what is on the ground. The lie continues and we’re forced back into court to disprove it once again.”

In 2019, groups first challenged the 2018 revised Flathead National Forest Plan, the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement, and the FWS biological opinion in the U.S. District Court in Montana. The Court ruled that the agencies’ analysis of impacts to grizzly bears and bull trout violated the Endangered Species Act, particularly in its arbitrary abandonment of the prior forest plan amendment the agencies credited with conserving the species. In response to the 2019 challenge, FWS made a series of minor but inadequate revisions to its biological opinion, which are the basis for today’s suit.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to paper over the deficiencies cited by the court, but the on the ground impacts to bull trout and grizzly bears from roads are real,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “They eliminated the very standards that protected bull trout and grizzly bears and replaced them with a scheme that allows more roads to be built. More roads equals less security for griz and degraded habitat for bull trout.”

Relying on the analysis in the biological opinion, the Forest Service has advanced numerous logging projects that threaten significant new road construction in grizzly bear habitat and bull trout watersheds. While only 3.2 road miles were constructed in grizzly habitat between 1996 and 2010, proposed new projects under the revised Forest Plan include the Mid-Swan (31.9 road miles), Bug Creek (13.3 road miles), Frozen Moose (13 road miles), Lake Five (4.9 road miles), and Spotted Bear Mountain (3.4 road miles) — for a total of 66.5 miles of road construction.

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