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HELENA - Critics of a plan to develop a military biathlon course on U.S. Forest Service land about 15 miles west of Helena have filed a lawsuit charging the agency gave scant attention to the project's effect on wildlife.

The course on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide would severely diminish the area's value to lynx, wolverines, wolves, grizzly bears, elk and moose, says the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, American Wildlands and Native Ecosystems Council. The area provides wildlife a link to larger blocks of habitat to the north and south, says the suit against the Forest Service.

The groups want a federal judge in Missoula to block the project.

Plans call for a Montana National Guard course that would be groomed and open to cross-country skiing by the public when not in military use for biathlon, a sport that involves rigorous cross-country skiing and target shooting with .22-caliber rifles. For the military, the course on the Divide's MacDonald Pass would be a place to train biathletes who would represent the National Guard in national and international competitions, perhaps even the Olympics.

Forest Service spokesman Rose Davis at the agency's regional headquarters in Missoula was away from her office on an assignment last week and did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the lawsuit, which was filed Monday. Helena Ranger Duane Harp, whose district includes the MacDonald Pass area, said he had not seen the suit.

"The National Guard, with approval from the Helena National Forest, simply cannot put a 50-car parking lot, five buildings, electricity, miles of new trails, 16 stream crossings and a shooting range in this 1.5-mile wide-strip of aspen, wetlands and conifer habitats, and still expect the area to meet the needs of wildlife," Gayle Joslyn of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association said in a statement. Joslyn is a retired wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

She called the biathlon area a "pinch-point" with housing encroachment to the east, U.S. 12 crossing the Divide and "an uncertain future for private lands on the west." Adding the biathlon course and expecting the place to remain viable as a wildlife corridor is unrealistic, Joslyn said.

The Montana Department of Military Affairs and the Forest Service announced earlier this month that surveying for the course would begin within weeks. National Guard spokesman Maj. Tim Crowe said last week that under a "very aggressive plan" for development, the biathlon course could be in use during the winter of 2009-2010.

The entire project would be on about 30 acres and would require removing trees from 18 acres within the 30, Harp said.

Helena National Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan approved the project, a decision that environmental groups appealed unsuccessfully.

The lawsuit says that, besides harming wildlife and violating Forest Service standards for soil protection, the biathlon course would diminish public enjoyment of the MacDonald Pass area. It charges that Forest Service violations of federal environmental law include failure to analyze the biathlon project's cumulative effects.

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