After four groups challenged a 2015 finding that logging wouldn’t affect bull trout, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reversed itself, stopping a logging project at the edge of the Mission Mountain Wilderness.
On Friday, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber announced he was withdrawing his Notice of No Significant Impact involving the Cold Jim Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project in the Swan Lake District. The project about 3 miles northwest of Condon was intended to be part of an effort to reduce fuels in the wildland-urban interface where homes have proliferated on private parcels. In a May 12 letter, Weber said his September 2016 decision to allow the logging project to move forward was based on USFWS biologists agreeing that bull trout in the area would not be affected.
Their opinion turned out to be wrong.
Shortly after Weber issued his decision, four organizations – the Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies – said they would sue Weber, the U.S. Forest Service and the USFWS for not doing a proper study of the project’s effects on wild or endangered species including lynx, grizzly bears, fishers, wolverines and bull trout.
For example, Cold Creek and Jim Creek are key bull trout spawning streams so they’ve been designated critical habitat. Roads are known to adversely impact bull trout habitat by clogging spawning beds with fine sediment, which reduces fry emergence and spawning success. Jim Creek is already listed as an impaired waterbody due to logging and roads. Approximately 179 miles of road already cross that area. Yet, the Cold Jim Project proposed 1,155 acres of logging and thinning, the construction of 3.1 miles of temporary roads and decommissioning 1.9 miles of road.
In its 2015 input into the Flathead National Forest Plan, Montana Trout Unlimited had also emphasized preserving existing bull trout habitat in the Swan valley, especially since so much money has been spent trying to eradicate lake trout from Swan Lake. Lake trout have had a negative affect on bull trout populations in northwestern Montana.
“As fisheries managers actively work to address the threats posed by non-native fish, maintaining high-quality aquatic habitat on the forest is and will continue to be essential for the conservation and recovery of at-risk native trout on the Flathead National Forest,” MTU executive director Bruce Farling wrote.
Facing a lawsuit, the USFWS reviewed their information and agreed that a formal assessment was necessary.
On April 27, the USFWS issued its Biological Opinion that the project was “likely to adversely affect” bull trout and their habitat. Weber has pulled the project for now.
“The Forest Service intends to prepare a supplemental Environmental Assessment to consider whether effects of the Project to bull trout and bull trout habitat are significant under the National Environmental Policy Act,” Weber wrote. “The Forest Service will not take any on-the-ground action to implement activities unless the agency makes a new decision.”
Arlene Montgomery, Friends of the Wild Swan program director, questioned why the project had been approved in the first place.
“It is ironic that the agencies were fine with this project until we raised concerns and threatened to sue,” Montgomery said in an email. “Once they went back and fully analyzed the project, they determined it would indeed adversely impact bull trout. This is why citizen oversight is so important.”
Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director, pointed out that fishers should live in the area and might be able to if it could be left alone for a while. Much of the Swan River Valley was owned and logged by Plum Creek Timber prior to being transferred to the Forest Service as part of the Legacy Project.
“We hope that in addition to studying the effects of logging and bulldozing new roads in bull trout critical habitat, the Forest Service will also look at the effects of further habitat destruction when you consider that the Forest Service has been unable to find a single fisher in recent years, despite using tracking and bait stations throughout the entire Southwest Crown of the Continent,” Garrity said.