HELENA - A federal appeals court says the Flathead National Forest failed to follow the grizzly bear standards in its Forest Plan when it approved the Moose Post-Fire Project in 2002.
Under the project, about 20 miles north of Columbia Falls, more access was given to motorized vehicles on lands in grizzly bear territory; salvage logging was done on about 2,000 acres of timber, part of the 71,000 acres burned in the 2001 Moose fire; trees were replanted on about 1,000 acres; and pheromone traps were introduced for bark beetles.
Several conservation groups challenged the increased motorized access, arguing that the Flathead Forest Plan mandates that the Forest Service "favor the needs of the grizzly bear when grizzly habitat and other land-use values compete."
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the Forest Service. The groups appeal-ed and on Tuesday the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and sent the matter back to the U.S. District Court.
The appellate court said the Forest Service must establish a standard for evaluating when land-use values "compete" with grizzly bears' needs.
"The court seems to be telling us that we have to develop a standard that further articulates what 'compete' means," said Joe Krueger, environmental litigation coordinator for the Flathead National Forest.
Conservation groups challenging motorized access under the Moose Post-Fire project included the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads.
"This ruling means you can't promise wildlife one thing in your Forest Plan, then arbitrarily take it away when it's time to go logging and motoring," said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition.
Krueger said in a telephone interview that the appellate court's ruling was frustrating because Forest Service officials believe the plan has improved grizzly habitat.
Under the Moose post-fire project, he said, 56 miles of roads were closed and seasonal or permanent access restrictions were imposed on 11 miles of open roads.