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Alliance for the Wild Rockies Sues Over Impacts on Grizzlies from Widespread Illegal Motorized Use on National Forests

Photo by  Roger Hayden.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit in federal district court on Friday over impacts to threatened grizzly bears from widespread illegal road use across the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest in Montana.  Illegal motorized use includes motorized use on “closed” roads by driving around gates or barriers or ripping them out, as well as illegal off-road motorized use and illegal user-created motorized trails and roads.  All of this illegal motorized use is unaccounted for in agency analysis documents, which leads to agency analyses that drastically underestimate the true impact of motorized use on threatened grizzly bears in these National Forests.  There is scientific consensus that roads pose the greatest threat to grizzly bear survival by displacing bears from preferred habitat, as well as creating more opportunities for humans to come into contact with grizzlies and shoot them.

National Forest motorized use restrictions are in place to protect grizzly bears, as well as other road-sensitive wildlife like elk and wolverines.  In 2019, we requested information from the Forest Service’s law enforcement division regarding known violations of road restrictions over the prior five-year period.  In particular, we were concerned about violations of road restrictions in wildlife habitat where threatened grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines may be present.

In these areas, law enforcement records document hundreds of violations of road restrictions, including but not limited to the following regions:

·  142 reported violations of road restrictions in the Big Belts Mountains,
·  60 reported violations of road restrictions on the Continental Divide,
·  52 reported violations of road restrictions in the Elkhorns Mountains
·   25 reported violations of road restrictions in the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park.

After we received this information – which we believe is merely the tip of the iceberg because it only addresses reported violations – it became crystal clear that the Forest Service cannot simply assume that a road restriction is effective simply because it has been written down on paper.  Consequently, we sent the Trump administration a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue last March stating we would take the issue to federal court unless the Forest Service consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of this recurring illegal motorized use on grizzly bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, almost nine months later the Trump administration has done nothing to address the issue.  Therefore, we have been left no choice but to exercise our constitutional rights to ask the court to order the federal government to follow the law.

These recurring violations demonstrate that illegal road use is a chronic and pervasive problem.  Accordingly, all road density calculations by the Forest Service that ignore these recurring violations are likely inaccurate — and therefore significantly underestimate both the amount of actual road use on National Forest lands and the actual impacts on grizzly bears and species with similar needs such as elk and wolverines.

Simply put, roads have widespread harmful impacts.  First, they cause a loss of and damage to wildlife habitat – which is our main concern.  It is well documented that most grizzly bears are killed near roads.  Why?  Because roads provide humans with access into grizzly bear habitat, which leads to direct bear mortality from accidental shootings and, even worse, intentional poaching.  The grizzlies that manage to escape this fate teach their young to avoid roads, which results in the secondary harm of forcing bears to survive in rocky, high-elevation areas that are largely unsuitable as wildlife habitat, as opposed to the bears’ preferred and more suitable habitat near streams and rivers where the roads are.  Likewise, elk avoid roads because they know that is where most hunters are. Wolverines also associate roads with people and thus avoid them.

But roads also result in more sediment going into streams and destroying habitat for native fish like bull trout which, like grizzlies, are on the Endangered Species List and must by law be protected until their populations can recover and achieve stability.

Although law enforcement maintains these records, there is no analysis of this information in any type of monitoring report by the management divisions of the Forest Service.  The agency has never quantified the number of miles of additional motorized use that these hundreds of violations represent, much less analyzed the effects of illegal motorized use on grizzly bears like the Kootenai National Forest in Northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest already do.

We are also suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not enforcing the permits they gave to the Forest Service to build more roads in grizzly bear habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service required the Forest Service to complete annual monitoring reports with up-to-date motorized use calculations are legally required by at least three different Incidental Take Statements.

By acting with deliberate indifference to these monitoring report requirements, the Forest Service renders these mandatory Endangered Species Act consultations, and the Travel Management and Forest Plans they are tied to, empty and meaningless paper exercises that undermine the very purpose of the Endangered Species Act.

It’s well known that the Trump administration has a horrific record on protecting or recovering endangered species.  But no administration, and especially not Trump’s, is above the law.  Someone must hold this federal land management agency accountable — and since the federal government did not even attempt to address this problem in response to our request, we are asking the court to order the Forest Service to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by federal law.

Our goal is two-fold: First, the government must acknowledge the very real impacts of pervasive and widespread illegal motorized use on grizzly bears; and second, the government must increase protections for grizzly bears in response in order to make up for the known fact that a a certain percentage of motorized use restrictions written down on paper will not be effective in real life.

Please consider making a donation to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to help us win this important case.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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