Today, a coalition of wildlife advocates, hunters, and anglers challenged the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the Forest Service’s decision to abandon all 10 crucial wildlife standards that have guided wildlife habitat management of the Helena National Forest for 30 years. In the forest plan revision process, the agencies failed to conduct legally required analysis of the effects this decision would have on threatened grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and big game species including elk. The abandonment of these standards significantly weakens protections for wildlife including preservation of important hiding cover, and allows increases in road density in wildlife habitat – a primary factor in grizzly bear mortality.
The revised forest plan allows forest managers to perform “fuel treatments,” a broad category of logging, in the majority of Canada lynx habitat in the national forest, and eliminates standards protecting big game habitat. It also removes grizzly bear habitat standards in many of the areas in the national forest important for grizzly bear movement and connectivity between grizzly populations in Montana, including the Upper Blackfoot and Divide areas.
“Hiding cover and road density in the Helena National Forest—in particular in the Divide landscape—have huge implications for threatened grizzly bears, as well as big game including elk,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “This major artery for grizzly migration is crucial to their recovery. The Biden Forest Service sidestepping a proper analysis to inform its decision to trash 30 years of successful forest and wildlife policy is beyond disappointing—and it violates the Endangered Species Act.”
“Members of Helena Hunters and Anglers have been engaged with the Helena portion of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest since the original forest plan was written in 1986. We are extremely concerned with the Service’s decision to abandon all the Wildlife Standards that were in the previous plan and were based on peer-reviewed science. The intent is clearly to preempt the public’s ability to hold the Forest Service accountable for its actions,” said Gayle Joslin, Helena Hunters and Anglers board member and retired wildlife biologist.
“In removing strong standards to protect elk, the Forest Service is also harming threatened Canada lynx and grizzly bears,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding manager for WildEarth Guardians. “In fact, the revised forest plan fails to ensure grizzly bears have secure habitat necessary to travel between areas dedicated to its recovery, which further isolates them. The best available science shows that in order to thrive, grizzly bears need safe passages to roam in search of new dens, food and mates. Here the revised forest plan falls short.”
“The 10 wildlife standards were essential for maintaining habitat for wildlife such as grizzly bears, lynx, and big game including big horn sheep,” said Jocelyn Leroux, Washington and Montana director with Western Watersheds Project. “However, with the removal of these protective 10 standards, the Forest Service completely failed to consider what the cumulative impacts of climate change and other uses such as business as usual livestock grazing might have on wildlife.”
“The standards thrown out by the Forest Service in its revised plan are crucial to protecting wildlife, and to enabling threatened grizzly bear populations in northern Montana and Yellowstone to connect with each other and reach full recovery,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative for the Sierra Club in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rockies regions. “Grizzly bears, Canada lynx, elk and many other species will pay a steep price if this decision is allowed to stand.”
“Elk security is being seriously compromised across the landscape, both from overcutting and from not enforcing motorized travel restrictions,” said Helena Hunters and Anglers member, wildlife biologist, and pilot Doug Powell.
For the past 30 years, and in accordance with the best available science (including the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging Study), the Service has managed wildlife habitat – specifically, important summer and winter range and security for big game species (mule deer, elk, moose, etc…) – on the Helena National Forest pursuant to 10 forest-wide standards that are designed to ensure sufficient hiding cover and limit road densities on national forest lands in the forest. These ten forest-side standards include the following:
- Standard 1: The Service will maintain adequate thermal and hiding cover in winter and summer range for big game species;
- Standard 2: The Service will conduct a hiding cover analysis in all NEPA documents for specific projects;
- Standard 3: The Service will manage summer range on the forest to ensure 35% hiding cover and 25% thermal cover in winter range (by elk herd unit);
- Standard 4: To protect big game security, the Service will ensure road densities do not exceed numeric limits set forth in a formula depending on the amount of available hiding cover.
- Standard 5: The Service will ensure minimum size for hiding cover is 40 acres; 15 acres for thermal;
- Standard 6: The Service will follow the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging Study Recommendations;
- Standard 7: The Service will inventory and map all summer/fall/winter ranges;
- Standard 8: If any sagebrush reduction occurs, the Service will analyze impacts to big game winter range;
- Standard 9: The Service will protect big horn sheep and mountain goat range during resource activities; and
- Standard 10: The Service will maintain moose habitat to provide adequate browse species.
These 10 forest-wide standards, which were designed to protect and restore big game habitat on the Helena National Forest, have succeeded in maintaining and protecting wildlife habitat, wildlife numbers, and connectivity on the Helena National Forest from various projects and activities. They also applied throughout the forest and in specific geographic areas important for wildlife movement and connectivity including areas where specific grizzly bear and lynx standards are either inadequate or do not apply at all.