Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for authorizing a massive logging and road-building project adjacent to Yellowstone National Park that would hinder threatened grizzly bear recovery in the region and destroy huge swaths of mature forests.
The South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project (SPLAT) would clearcut more than 5,500 acres (more than six square miles) and log another 6,600 acres of mature forests over the next approximately 15 years near West Yellowstone, Montana—a tourism hub and gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The project would also construct more than 56 miles of temporary roads, including on remnants from past timber sales where the roads were abandoned. While the agency says it will again remove these roads at an unspecified time in the future, roads like these often persist on the ground for years.
“This project proposes new clearcuts and more roads in an especially vulnerable area for Yellowstone grizzly bears,” said Matthew Bishop, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The location of the project in some of the most deficient grizzly bear areas in the region is troubling. This area is already considered a population sink for bears – where grizzly bear mortality is already too high and habitat security too low. This project will make an already bad situation worse.”
“Yellowstone grizzlies need more habitat to recover, not less. Building more roads that reduce bear habitat will only add more casualties to the 50 Yellowstone bear deaths we have suffered just this year,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding manager with WildEarth Guardians. “Grizzly bears must be able to freely roam and connect to new habitats in order to truly recover, and the SPLAT project makes that harder to achieve.”
“It is time for resource management agencies to adhere to the best available and most recent science when it comes to the management of grizzly bears,” said Clint Nagel, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “Current guidelines used in their protection are outdated, actually worsening habitat fragmentation rather than aiding in bear habitat protection. It is time that grizzly bear management principles reflect those true conditions, conditions necessary for their secure habitat.”
Represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians, the Gallatin Wildlife Association, and Native Ecosystem Council contend the project violates the Endangered Species Act by impacting threatened populations of grizzly bears that require wild, connected habitat to recover. The groups are also challenging the Forest Service for failing to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of the project in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Nearly 4 million people visit West Yellowstone, Montana, annually for the opportunity to observe wildlife and see the wild lands of the Rocky Mountains. This project has the potential to impact the recreation economy of the region, and at a minimum the perception of the wild that visitors to Yellowstone seek,” said Andrew Rothman, Wild Places Program director at WildEarth Guardians.
On August 7, 2023 the Custer-Gallatin National Forest issued a final decision for its South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project (SPLAT) that authorizes clearcutting on more than 5,500 acres (more than six square miles) and commercial logging of another 6,600 acres of mature forests near West Yellowstone, Montana. The project would construct 56.8 miles of temporary roads through old forests and remove more than 83 million board feet of commercial timber.
Logging and road construction would take place in critical habitat for Canada lynx and the Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. The Custer-Gallatin National Forest relies on maintaining conditions for grizzly bear habitat security as they existed in 1998 to demonstrate it is contributing to the bear’s recovery. The lawsuit challenges this reliance as insufficient since it fails to account for numerous other factors that affect the ability of grizzly to recover including climate change effects, loss of food sources, and a sharp escalation in grizzly bear mortalities. According to government figures, 50 grizzly bears from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem alone were confirmed or assumed dead in 2023 as of Nov. 13.
The Forest Service did not specify the location and timing of where the agency would log the forest and construct roads due to its use of conditions-based management, where the agency waits until after it issues a project decision to collect site-specific information. The agency explains that temporary road construction may occur on old remnants of past temporary roads that were abandoned or others left from past decades, called “jammer roads,” but it did not disclose the specific conditions or locations of the new construction. The lawsuit challenges this approach to National Environmental Policy Act compliance for failing to take a “hard look” at the potential environmental consequences as the law requires.
The lawsuit also challenges the Forest Service for its failure to account for the loss of carbon storage benefits from logging mature and old growth trees. On Earth Day 2022, President Biden issued this executive order titled “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies” (EO 14072) requiring the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conserve mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. On April 20, 2023, the Forest Service and BLM issued the first-ever national inventory of mature and old growth forests, the first step for complying with EO 14072. The inventory classifies lodgepole pine greater than 120 years old as old growth and about half that age for reaching maturity. The SPLAT project would clearcut 5,551 acres of lodgepole stands more than 80-90 years old.