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Three Kootenai National Forest logging projects have been halted because they failed to properly analyze how the work would affect a dwindling population of grizzly bears there.

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy blocked the projects on Tuesday in a lawsuit between the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Kootenai Forest Supervisor Paul Bradford. In his 64-page ruling, Molloy said the Forest Service failed to show it had properly examined how the work would affect the bears.

"By looking only at the (bear management unit), it is possible there could be multiple projects going on in neighboring BMUs and the Forest Service would never assess how the various projects interact and if there are ‘additive changes' from all of the projects," Molloy wrote.

"An agency must provide support for its choice of analysis area and must show that it considered the relevant factors. The Forest Service did not provide any such support for its process here."

The three projects would have affected about 4,000 acres in the mountains of Lincoln County.

The Little Beaver project would have allowed commercial thinning on 780 acres, along with construction of 5.5 miles of new permanent roads and 2 miles of temporary road. The Grizzly project would have done timber harvest, prescribed burning and thinning, and habitat restoration on 2,360 acres. The Miller West Fisher project would have done timber harvest on 2,506 acres, with road storage and removal and other restoration work on 3,148 acres.

Molloy issued a temporary restraining order on the projects June 9. At the time, Bradford said the projects should be allowed to proceed.

"The Little Beaver project is outside the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone," Bradford said in a news release. "We carefully considered the impacts and believe this project would not be detrimental to grizzly bears."

On Wednesday, Bradford's spokeswoman Janette Turk said Forest Service officials were "still evaluating strategy on how we're going to respond."

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Grizzlies got federal threatened species status in 1975. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem of northwest Montana and the Idaho panhandle is one of four grizzly recovery zones. It has a recovery goal of 100 healthy bears.

In 1993, biologists estimated there were between 15 and 20 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak. That number grew to 45 by 2007, and the bears had moved into territory outside the recovery zone.

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But Molloy noted the most recent population studies show a nearly 90 percent probability that grizzly numbers will decline. While most of the human-caused grizzly deaths occurred outside federal lands, the Forest Service was under orders not to damage its grizzly habitat without extensive analysis of any road construction plans.

AWR director Michael Garrity said the Forest Service needed to look beyond the boundaries of those projects to see how the changes would affect grizzly habitat throughout the national forest.

"Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there's a higher probability the bear is going extinct," Garrity said. "We want them to meet their recovery goal of 100 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak instead of moving away from it. They have to demonstrate they're not hurting the recovery of grizzly bears. These sales did the opposite."

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

 

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