Government denies claims concerning sage grouse

2013-03-01T00:00:00Z Government denies claims concerning sage grouseBy Francis Davis of The Montana Standard Montana Standard

Two environmental groups suing Forest Service to stop 3,400-acre timber thinning in Pioneers near Wise River

Attorneys for the U.S. Forest Service and regional forester Supervisor Faye Krueger filed court papers in U.S. District Court in Missoula this week, denying the allegations of two local environmental groups.

The groups are suing the Forest Service and Krueger in an attempt to stop a 3,400-acre thinning project in the east Pioneer Mountains north of Dillon near Wise River.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council contend that the Forest Service’s Trapper Creek Vegetation Management plan needlessly cuts conifers and burns sagebrush.

The groups contend the plan is illegal and shortsighted, especially, the groups say, since it harms the sage grouse, which is on target to be on the endangered species list in 2015.

In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the sage grouse is warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but stated that the listing would have to wait in line behind higher priority listings.

Sage grouse can be found in 11 western states. They are ground-dwelling birds up to two-feet tall and weighing between two and seven pounds. The birds live at elevations between 4,000 and 9,000 feet, and they are highly dependent on sage brush for food and cover.

The FWS has documented that the sage grouse population has declined by as much as 93 percent from their historical highs. The population has suffered from habitat fragmentation caused by fire and human activity such as grazing management, and oil and gas exploration.

The project area includes 78,645 acres of national forest lands. The 3,400 acres scheduled for thinning is comprised of 57 different sites.

In a March 2012 decision paper, the Forest Service claimed the logging and burning operation “would improve growing conditions for the preferred dominant native vegetation type.”

Specifically, the decision claimed that the thinning project would stop conifers from growing in stream areas, shrub lands, and grass areas; allow more aspens to grow; and stabilize or help declining or unique habitats.

However, along with endangering the sage grouse, the lawsuit contends that the Forest Service did not adequately inform the public about the reasons and effects of the plan.

In an interview with The Montana Standard, Michael Garrity, the executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said cattle do far more harm to aspen growth than sage brush.

“They haven’t told the public the real problem is cattle grazing,” Garrity said “And they haven’t explained if they (implement the plan) they are destroying important sage grouse habitat.”

Cattle grazing has occurred in the project area for over 100 years.

When reached by The Montana Standard for comment, Leona Rodreick, public affairs officer for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said the Forest Service could not comment on any cases in litigation.

Sara Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in biology from Montana State University and worked for the Forest Service for 14 years before resigning and starting the Native Ecosystems Council based in Three Forks, said the thinning project is an example of the way the Forest Service prioritizes cattle grazing and logging interests over the environment.

“It’s the same old practice of getting rid of trees for cows,” Johnson said. “People think they are managing the wildlife, but they aren’t. Logging is king. They are under tremendous pressure by Congress to have timber sales. That’s what drives them – the impact of the environment is irrelevant.”

The project area has been the site of timber harvesting.

— Reporter Francis Davis can be reached at francis.davis@mtstandard .com

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