Several conservation organizations recently announced their intent to legally challenge federal approval of a timber harvest and road development plan in Montana. In a notice of intent letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and Friends of the Wild Swan assert the plan does not adequately protect species in the region listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) and grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis).
The plan, to be administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), authorizes commercial timber logging activity, construction of 1,100 miles of new roads, and management of state forest land in western Montana for the next 50 years.
To comply with the ESA, the DNRC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) conducted a series of studies to assess the development’s impact on wildlife and drafted a habitat conservation plan (HCP) to mitigate threatened species loss to the highest extent practicable.
Following that, FWS wrote a biological opinion reviewing the HCP. Though it admitted development would harm some bears and bull trout, particularly by disrupting secure grizzly bear habitat and releasing sediment into trout-occupied streams, the biological opinion ultimately concluded that the populations as a whole would not be threatened. In late 2011, FWS approved the HCP and issued an incidental take permit, which grants the DNRC permission to proceed with its development plan as long as the HCP is followed and harm to ESA-protected species is kept to a minimum.
The conservation groups, represented by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice, disagree with this approval. They contend that the biological opinion was not based on the best available data, and that the HCP does not provide the best possible protection for threatened species and their habitats. Of particular concern, they note in their letter to Salazar, is the HCP’s lack of consideration of the expected impacts of global climate change on wildlife over the next 50 years.
Further, the letter warns that if FWS does not revisit the biological opinion and incidental take statement by November 12, 2012, the conservation groups will attempt to sue the agency in federal district court for violation of the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to Earthjustice Attorney Jenny Harbine, the conservation groups are hoping for a court order that requires the DNRC and FWS to develop new habitat conservation plans, granting a higher level of protection to the threatened species.
When asked about the letter of intent, Deputy Assistant Regional Director Matt Kales of the FWS Mountain-Prairie Region said his organization was unable to provide a comment due to the pending nature of the litigation.