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Two conservation organizations plan to sue the Flathead National Forest, arguing a new forest management plan fails to protect threatened and endangered species in the northern Rocky Mountains.

“The plan allows a huge amount of new road building to the detriment of grizzly bears and bull trout,” said Earthjustice attorney Josh Purtle, who represents Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan. “It essentially says we’re going to change the requirements where you can build a road and how many miles you can build while maintaining the 2011 habitat conditions to protect grizzlies. But the plan doesn’t actually do that.”

The two groups filed their notice of intent to sue in federal court on Friday. Proceedings may begin in 60 days.

The 2,000-page Flathead Forest Plan guides how Flathead National Forest staff direct projects and value resources on 2.4 million acres of public land. Its latest update got approved during the partial government shutdown and took effect at the end of January.

It includes a set of grizzly bear management standards that apply to other national forests overseeing the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem: the Lolo, Kootenai and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests.

Flathead Supervisor Chip Weber said those grizzly standards would adequately take care of the bears while allowing for other forest uses.

“It’s progressed quite a bit since we did Amendment 19 on the previous plan,” Weber said, referring to a court-required set of grizzly habitat standards added to the 2006 version of the plan. “If you look at the grizzly population, it’s flourishing with the conditions on the ground. Having increases of 2 to 3 percent a year for species like that is really great. The plan looks at the conditions on the ground and keeping those conditions in place.”

Biologists with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee estimate about 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes those four national forests, Glacier National Park, and parts of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations. Critics of the IGBC and Forest Service dispute that population total and the growth rate, arguing both are based on outdated extrapolations of old studies that could have overestimated the true number of bears.

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“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says is helping recover grizzly bears and bull trout,” Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer wrote in an email. “It is replacing that with road-building and logging, and trying to call that restoration. We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”

A new logging project developed under the 2019 Forest Plan anticipates building 60 miles of new road in the mid-Swan Front of the Flathead Forest east of Bigfork. Under Amendment 19, Hammer said those roads would have to be obliterated after the project was finished. Under the new plan, they could be closed with gates and no longer counted as a habitat impact.

Recent studies have provided somewhat confusing conclusions to the debate. A 2018 Alberta university project found increased roads lead to increased grizzly deaths. But another study in British Columbia released later the same year found the hazard was reduced if the forest roads were effectively closed and not used.

“We know with open roads, the disturbance from humans has some effect,” Weber said. “Whereas, if the roads are closed, the grizzlies are fine. The total road system doesn’t matter.”

Hammer and colleague Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan counter that the Flathead has done a poor job of enforcing its road closures, and has not accounted for increased recreational use of those areas by motorized riders, bicyclists and hikers. In addition, Montgomery said even closed roads will hurt wildlife if they aren’t maintained.

“When road culverts inevitably fail they dump sediment into streams that will clog (bull trout) spawning beds,” Montgomery wrote in an email. “The Flathead doesn’t have the budget to maintain its existing road system, so they should be reducing the miles of road on the forest instead of degrading habitat for wildlife and fish.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had planned to remove NCDE grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection at the end of 2018. However, a similar effort to delist about 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was overturned in court last September. The service has postponed action on the Montana grizzlies while it considers its options for appealing or rewriting the Yellowstone bear rule.

Grizzly bears throughout the Lower 48 states have been a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1975.

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