HELENA — A federal judge this week blocked three Montana logging projects in two national forests, saying the U.S. government did not properly examine the effects the projects might have on lynx and the threatened animal's habitat.
That makes four timber projects since May in which U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen found fault with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' conclusion that cutting and burning in those areas would not significantly harm the big cats' territory.
Canada lynx have been listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000. Fish, Wildlife and Parks says Montana supports the healthiest lynx population in the lower 48 states, with a range over most of the western part of the state.
Two environmentalist groups, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council, are behind the lawsuits challenging all four timber projects.
Alliance executive director Mike Garrity said the lawsuits are meant to scrutinize the U.S. government's every step in approving timber sales to ensure it closely follows the Endangered Species Act.
"They have to do a real analysis," Garrity said Tuesday. "If they just paper over it and they're not doing it based on the best science available, we'll (sue) again."
On Monday, Christensen halted the timber sale of more than 15,600 acres in the Big Belt mountains, saying the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Services approved the project based on a finding that lynx do not occupy the area.
The environmental groups say the animals pass through the area, and three collared lynx were tracked in the area between 2004 and 2006.
Christensen ruled the Endangered Species Act requires the agencies to determine whether lynx "may be present" there, which is a lesser standard than what the agencies used in concluding lynx don't "occupy" the area.
That means the government must conduct a biological assessment or provide a written consultation on the possible effects by the project to the habitat.
The judge ordered the two agencies to consult on the issue before he will release his hold on the Cabin Gulch Project.
Helena National Forest spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell said staff from her agency and FWS will meet to coordinate their next steps.
Christensen blocked a 3,000-acre project in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest last month for the same reason.
On Tuesday, Christensen halted two more logging projects over thousands of acres in the Gallatin National Forest in southwestern Montana.
The judge said the government approved those projects based on an unreliable conclusion they would not harm the lynx's critical habitat.
The government acknowledges the East Boulder and the Bozeman Municipal Watershed timber projects are within lynx critical habitat, but officials said the area affected is relatively small and would not harm the overall territory the animals rely upon for hunting and denning.
But Christensen said that conclusion was based on a rule that was published three years before critical habitat for lynx was identified in 2009.
The judge said the agencies must consult again on that 2006 rule now that the critical habitat areas have been identified. He blocked the two projects until the rule is revisited or the government comes up with a new conclusion that is not based on the rule.