USFS amendment recalled after lawsuit

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A recent Forest Service decision in Helena put to end a controversial forest plan amendment that could have set a precedent for other neighboring national forests, including the Kootenai, according to a press release issued by the Western Environmental Law Center on Dec. 6.

Helena – A coalition of Montana sportsmen’s groups commended the Helena-Lewis Clark National Forest’s recent decision to withdraw a forest plan amendment that could have negatively impacted big game habitat, potentially greatly reducing public hunting opportunity.

The amended plan would have changed how big game habitat is managed on the Divide landscape west of Helena, particularly the amount of hiding cover and secure habitat for elk and other big game.

The decision could have set a precedent for other national forests, including the Kootenai, according to Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center which represented the groups who filed the lawsuit.

“Under the new security standard, they didn’t include a hiding cover component,” Bishop said. “Meaning clear-cut areas could qualify as big game security.”

Providing safe areas for big game species is important to protect the populations, he said, because it ensures that they have a place to hide during hunting season and that they don’t get killed off too early.

While there’s much more hiding cover in the Kootenai Forest, the Lewis and Clark National Forest, particularly around Helena, has many clear-cut areas.

Decades of studies around the West demonstrate that secure habitat is critical if elk are to survive on public lands.

According to the press release issued Dec. 6, the Forest Service approach conflicted with the available science and was developed with inadequate consideration of its impacts and of possible alternatives.

The Forest Service announced its change in course in response to the lawsuit filed by a coalition of Montana-based sportsmen’s groups. The coalition included the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Helena Hunters & Anglers Association, Clancy-Unionville Citizens Task Force and Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club.

“We’re pleased that the Forest Service listened to our concerns and recognizes the importance of maintaining habitat security for healthy elk herds and ample hunting opportunity,” Dave Stalling, Montana Wildlife Federation Western field representative, said in the press release. “This is good news for elk and good news for those of us who hunt elk.”

Following the Forest Service’s decision, the forest’s previous big game security standard – Standard 4a – is reinstated, fulfilling a key goal of the sportsmen’s suit. Developed by wildlife biologists, Standard 4a includes a hiding cover component and other protections important to big game species as well as other sensitive species.

“The Forest Service made the correct decision,” Bishop said. “In short, the Forest Service was on the verge of breaking a promise it made to the Montana sportsmen regarding managing wildlife habitat with the best scientific knowledge. We’re glad they chose to rectify the situation before it was too late.”

“The implications of the Forest Service’s actions set a precedent that could extend far beyond the borders of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest,” John Sullivan, chair of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said in a press release. “Our suit represented a last-ditch attempt to sustain wildlife populations and opportunity for hunters, both immediately and in the long term. The stakes were high, and we’re grateful that the Forest Service made the right call here – benefiting sportsmen, wildlife and our public lands both immediately and in the long term.”

Bethany Rolfons is a reporter at The Western News and can be reached at 293-4124 or by email at reporter@thewesternnews.com

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