Federal court blocks Ripley Project in Kootenai National Forest in Montana, ruling planners failed to analyze how it might hurt struggling grizzly bear, Canada lynx populations; project expected 10-20 years of commercial timber work on about 11,000 acres

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June 27, 2023 (press release) –

Jun. 26—A federal court blocked a large logging project near Libby on Monday, ruling planners failed to analyze how it might hurt a struggling population of grizzly bears and Canada lynx.

"The Court and the public should not have to embark on a scavenger hunt through a nearly thirty-thousand page administrative record to find information that the BiOp (biological opinion) itself was supposed to disclose," U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen wrote in his order favoring the Alliance for the Wild Rockies over officials at the Kootenai National Forest , Forest Service Region One, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and intervenors from the American Forest Resource Council , Lincoln County and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition .

The decision halts the Ripley Project on the Kootenai National Forest , which anticipated 10 to 20 years of commercial timber work on just under 11,000 acres east of Libby . It would have created about five square miles of clearcuts and 30 miles of new logging roads, along with reconstruction of about 93 miles of existing roads. The Forest Service estimated it would cost federal taxpayers $643,000 beyond what profits from the timber sales might have produced due to ecological remediation costs needed after the logging was completed.

"Roads pose the biggest threat to grizzly bears, followed by logging and habitat removal," AWR Executive Director Michael Garrity said on Monday. "And the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population in particular is in bad shape. The most recent actual count of grizzlies, published in 2021 for the 2020 monitoring year, for this population is 45 bears. The prior year counted 50 bears, and the year before that counted 54 bears. However, the government's own Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan requires 100 bears for the minimum viable population."

Forest Service officials did not return requests for comment on Monday. American Forest Resource Council President Travis Joseph said the intervenors were disappointed with the judge's decision.

" The Ripley Project is necessary because Lincoln County has the most acres at risk from catastrophic wildfire than any other county in Montana ," Joseph wrote in an email on Monday. "To address this serious risk, the Ripley Project was collaboratively developed to protect Libby and other nearby communities while restoring forest health and resiliency on the Kootenai National Forest . We will continue working with our partners to support and defend this project so it can be implemented as soon as possible."

The project covered a mix of federal, state and private timberlands. Christensen faulted the federal agencies for failing to consider how logging and roadwork on those non-federal lands could hurt the grizzly population.

"Defendants assumed, contrary to the evidence before them, that the non-federal lands do not provide habitat for grizzly bears," Christensen wrote. "They then used that false assumption to conclude that because the project would not substantially reduce secure habitat on USFS land, the project would not jeopardize the grizzly bear."

Christensen also found the Forest Service and FWS failed to properly analyze the project's impact on Canada lynx, which is also protected under the Endangered Species Act. And he ruled that the agencies "did not attempt to obtain and did not disclose details regarding the amount of logging on State lands or the increase in roads that will occur on State and private lands during logging operations in the Project area, and thus failed to consider the cumulative effects of those activities on the grizzly bear."

While Christensen blocked the Ripley project from proceeding until the Forest Service and FWS can fix the weaknesses in their analyses, he did not require the agencies to prepare a complete environmental impact statement.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.


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