On April 4, 2022, a federal court in Montana found that a large-scale logging project on public lands in the Castle Mountains in western Montana is unlawful. The project would have allowed 45 miles of road construction and reconstruction, as well as logging and burning across 22,500 acres, in this small island mountain range. The federal court enjoined the project for violating legal protections for elk habitat, and for violating legal protections for the sensitive, old-growth dependent northern goshawk.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council are extremely pleased the Court halted this clearcutting and road bulldozing project and sent it back to the drawing board to force the Forest Service to follow the law. Public lands must be managed for the public and for our wildlife, not for the private profit of a few logging companies. Legal protections are meaningless if the Forest Service is free to simply ignore them when it plans logging projects on our public lands.
The Castle Mountains get their name from the numerous 50-foot high igneous rock spires on the western slopes that look like castle turrets. The range is located about 65 miles northeast of Bozeman and is characterized by peaks over 8,000 feet with numerous grassy parks surrounded by Douglas fir, lodgepole, and limber pine forests.
The road density in this project area is over 3 miles of road/square mile, which already violates Forest Plan road density limits. The court order finds: “Plaintiffs present compelling record evidence that elk habitat effectiveness levels are not currently being met in the Project area and that those levels will only worsen during Project implementation.”
While the Forest Service admits the Eastside Assessment is the best available science for elk habitat, the agency lied to the public about what that document actually says. The Eastside Assessment requires each project to analyze the effects temporary logging roads will have on habitat effectiveness for elk. Yet, the Forest Service refused to do so and erroneously told that public that the Eastside Assessment allows for the exclusion of temporary roads from habitat effectiveness analysis. There’s no other way to say it — that was a lie, and now we have held the Forest Service accountable for that lie. As the court order noted, the Forest Service’s “conclusion is premised on a misrepresentation of the Eastside Assessment.”
The Lewis and Clark Forest Plan lists goshawk as an old-growth forest management indicator species and requires 100% of goshawk nets to be monitored annually. The Forest Service data showed there was a precipitous decline in active goshawk nests over the past few years, from 38 active nests in 2016, to 15 active nests in 2017, to a mere 8 active nests in 2018.
Despite the alarming drop in active goshawk nests across the Forest, the Forest Service failed to disclose the decline to the public in the Project Environmental Impact Statement. The Forest Service also ignored its own Forest Plan, which requires the agency to conduct a public evaluation report if active nests decline by 10% in a year. On this issue, the federal court held: “the record here does not show the agency complied with NEPA or NFMA in regards to the undisputed decline in goshawk nesting territories.”
These violations are extremely troubling since goshawk are ‘the canary in the coal mine’ for the health of wildlife populations associated with mature and old growth forest habitat on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The amount of old growth in the Castle Mountains is estimated at only 12% of the landscape, while 20-25% old growth is recommended for viable populations of old growth associated species, including the goshawk. Yet the Forest Service wanted to destroy 24 square miles of goshawk habitat in the Castle Mountains.
Please consider helping us make the Forest Service follow the law. It takes constant vigilance.