MISSOULA - A Missoula federal court judge on Monday put a hold on a Yaak-area logging project where the Kootenai National Forest had planned work to begin in mid-May.
Missoula federal district Judge Dana Christensen ruled a permanent injunction was justified to delay the 56,000-acre Knotty Pine Project while a lawsuit against the Kootenai National Forest proceeds.
“Although preventing catastrophic wildfire and promoting a healthier forest ecosystem undoubtedly are in the public interest, the Project’s 10-year duration and the relatively modest delay resulting from a preliminary injunction undercuts the urgency Defendants assign to wildfire mitigation as a basis for allowing the entire Project to proceed while this litigation is pending,” Christensen wrote in his decision.
After filing a lawsuit almost a year ago challenging the Knotty Pine Project because of its threat to Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bears, five conservation groups asked the court for an injunction in mid-March to stop the Kootenai Forest from opening closed roads and building new ones until the case is decided.
The groups include the Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yaak Valley Forest Council, WildEarth Guardians and Native Ecosystems Council.
The Kootenai National Forest said last summer that it would delay ground-disturbing activities such as road building until this May 15.
However, in November, the U.S. Forest Service admitted it had already rebuilt more than two miles of road during October, including some through the grizzly core area, according to court documents. So the groups asked the judge to place all construction on hold until the lawsuit is decided.
To grant an injunction, a judge has to decide that, among other things, the plaintiffs’ case is likely to succeed and that harm would occur without an injunction. Christensen believed both apply.
The Knotty Pine project is primarily in one Bear Management Unit of the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, where the population goal is at least 100 grizzly bears.
But the population has struggled, limited partly by isolation and partly by humans. Only an estimated 50 bears inhabit the area. From 1982 to 2020, researchers reported 64 instances of known and probable grizzly bear mortality in and near the area and found that 72% were human-caused.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in its biological opinion for the projects wrote the Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies are “a small population in which the survival and reproduction of each individual female grizzly bear is very important.”
Still, the Kootenai National Forest decided to go ahead with the Knotty Pine project, even though it concluded the project was likely to adversely affect the grizzly bears.
Aside from all the noisy human activity that accompanies logging and burning projects, roads are considered the most detrimental to grizzly bears because they bring more people into bear habitat, which leads to conflict and dead bears.
The conservation groups argued that the Kootenai National Forest and the USFWS calculated the miles of road in the area to justify adding more roads for the project but hadn’t added the damaging effect of the illegal use of closed roads in its calculations.
The federal agencies argued that they couldn’t do that because they didn’t know when or how often the roads were used, but when it did happen, it was only temporary. The Forest Service pointed out that it repaired berms and other road obstacles as soon as it found illegal use.
However, based on several documents, Christensen said the federal agencies could factor in the effect of illegal roads. He pointed out that the Kootenai National Forest Plan said any road found to have illegal use would be considered an open road for that year. So such roads should be considered in the calculation of open roads.
Also in its Forest Plan, the Kootenai National Forest estimated that the amount of illegal use of closed roads was as high as 8% so it concludes that “some Forest users have, and will likely continue to break the law and drive motorized vehicles where such use is illegal.”
In addition, the Yaak Valley Forest Council surveyed the roads in the Knotty Pine project area in 2021 and documented “multiple gated or bermed roads that may have been bypassed by all-terrain vehicles or motorcycles at some time in the past.”
As to the frequency of illegal use, the USFWS noted that illegal motorized use was observed in the bear management unit in 2 of the 8 years they monitored.
All these details added to the merit of the plaintiff’s case, Christensen said.
“Thus, even if the Court could accept the agencies’ post-hoc reasoning for their treatment of unauthorized motorized access, their explanation runs counter to the evidence before the agency and appears to change course from previously applied methods and standards without supplying a reasoned explanation for doing so,” Christensen wrote.
As to the harm that might occur if the U.S. Forest Service were allowed to start its project, Christensen pointed out that only one female grizzly is known to live in the affected bear management unit and she has occasionally had cubs. If roads or other project activities were to push her and her cubs out of the area, that could further slow the recovery of the Cabinet-Yaak population.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, which intervened on behalf of the Kootenai National Forest, said increased motorized use could slow grizzly reproduction during the project for three to five years, affecting one to two reproductive cycles.
“…the possibility of slowed reproduction in a Project area known to be used by female grizzly bears with young presents a gravely serious and non-speculative risk to both individuals and the species,” Christensen wrote.
The federal agencies argued that putting a hold on the entire Knotty Pine project went too far. Christensen said he would consider allowing parts of the project to go ahead if the two parties agreed or if the Forest Service could prove they wouldn’t add harm.
The plaintiffs were pleased with Christensen’s findings.
“Once again, the Forest Service was caught breaking the law because of the ongoing chronic problem of ineffective closures and unauthorized motorized access,” said Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director. “This is very important since most grizzlies are killed within one-third of a mile from a road and the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population decreased 30% in the last five years.”
A year ago March, Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chadwick Benson approved the Knotty Pine Project, which, among other activities, would allow more than 5,000 acres of commercial logging over 10 years — including 57 acres of old-growth forest and 14 clearcuts of between 40 and 220 acres — for the purpose of harvesting 29 million board-feet of lumber. Two miles of new logging road would be built and another 35 miles would be reconstructed.
The Knotty Pine Project is one of five logging projects totaling almost 315,000 acres in the Yaak region approved by the Kootenai National Forest.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com