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A logging project in the Kootenai National Forest that won a federal district court challenge has been temporarily halted by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies won an injunction on the Grizzly timber sale Monday, arguing its appeal of the lower court ruling would be moot if the sale went forward. The Helena-based group claims the sale would damage grizzly bear habitat as well as Canada lynx and fisher around the Cabinet-Yaak region.

Grizzlies are considered a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The population goal for the Cabinet-Yaak is 100 bears, but only 41 are believed to live there now.

“The Forest Service’s continuous implementation of logging and road-building projects in occupied Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear habitat – despite the failing status of this imperiled bear population – frustrates the congressional intent to halt the bear’s trend toward extinction,” AWR attorneys Rebecca Smith and Tim Bechtold wrote. “Although any one timber sale or road may not dramatically worsen baseline habitat conditions, the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is being gradually destroyed, (although) each step on the path to destruction is sufficiently modest. As this court has determined, this type of slow slide into oblivion is one of the very ills the ESA seeks to prevent.”

But Kootenai Forest natural resources staff officer Quinn Carver contended the Grizzly project was actually designed to improve conditions for the bears. The environmentalists’ lawsuit affected three logging projects and helped develop new standards for wildlife recovery, he said. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in the U.S. Forest Service’s favor, Carver said.

“Aspects of all three projects actually benefit grizzly bears and watershed conditions out there,” Carver said. “And harvesting will be really productive for forest health. Implementing those standards and grizzly management practices in the Grizzly project actually increases grizzly core habitat for bear management up there. It’s more beneficial to bears that way.”

Two of the projects, Little Beaver and Grizzly, had been cleared and contracted, Carver said. The third, Miller-West-Fisher, was expected to have a new forest supervisor’s decision released in a few weeks.

Road-building and logging work was getting underway on Sept. 8 when AWR asked the appeals court for the new injunction. Alliance director Michael Garrity said that road-building was scientifically shown to hurt bear survival.

“The predictions regarding the bears’ survival have become increasingly bleak,” Garrity said in an email. “Yet the Forest Service continues to exacerbate the situation through more road building and clearcutting in the bears’ last refuge, even as human-caused mortality rates have tripled in the last decade.”

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

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