The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has not signed any new decision notices for timber or vegetation projects since Oct. 15 and will not do so until it complies with a federal judge’s order that the Forest Service assess the potential effects of the current forest plan on lynx.
Once the Forest Service completes a biological assessment for lynx, the agency must allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consult on those findings before new timber projects begin. The Forest Service is currently drafting its assessment. Once FWS receives it, the agency could take up to five months to respond.
While such decisions must be signed before a project can start, the necessary work to get projects to the point where a decision notice could be issued is continuing while work on the lynx assessment is conducted, according to Betsy Herrmann, the staff officer who oversees environmental planning and natural resources for the BDNF.
“Many of the projects we’re working on, we’re not to the decision anyway,” she said this week. “So it’s not like we’re just waiting. We’re still working on them.”
Tony Colter, general manager and vice president of Deer Lodge’s Sun Mountain Lumber, said the inability to move forward on projects concerns him, as his company has been waiting years to salvage lumber from some projects areas that are now subject to further delays.
“It just delays all these timber sales that are critical for us,” Colter said. But, he said, “My understanding is, they’re going to have a response to it fairly quickly. We’re not in a panic yet.”
The roots of the lynx-caused delays can traced back to at least 2007, according to Herrmann. That’s the year the Forest Service issued a document known as the Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction that identified the BDNF as being unoccupied by lynx.
According to Herrmann, that direction determined that “we didn’t have any documented resident lynx on the forest that we’d found, so any lynx that we’d found were just transient, passing through.”
As a result, when the BDNF adopted a new forest plan two years later, Herrmann said, “We didn’t consult at the forest plan level in 2009 because we were unoccupied, and the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t list lynx as being on our forest.”
But in 2012, two environmental groups – the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council – sued the Forest Service over a logging and habitat improvement project proposed on 3,000 acres of Mount Fleecer, about 20 miles southwest of Butte. The groups argued that the project posed a threat to elk, grizzly bears, and lynx, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species.
A year later, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen blocked the Fleecer project from proceeding until the Forest Service and FWS could take another look at the effects on these species.
When that assessment and consultation were conducted, the Forest Service found that the Fleecer project "may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect" lynx, and the FWS concurred with that finding, according to court filings. The FWS also found that lynx may be present in the forest.
When the Forest Service asked Christensen to lift his injunction on the Fleecer project and allow it to move forward, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council opposed the move, arguing that the Fleecer-specific assessment was insufficient because it did not consider the affects the larger forest plan might have on lynx, which had been found to possibly be present on the forest.
In an Oct. 15 ruling, Christensen agreed with the environmental groups’ arguments, declining to lift the Fleecer injunction and finding that the Forest Service must consider the potential effects of the forest plan on lynx.
“So that’s a broader, higher-up, plan-level consultation,” Herrmann said. “So the court ordered us to do that, so that’s what we’re working on now.”
While Christensen’s ruling applied specifically to Fleecer, Herrmann said she and her colleagues at the Forest Service “feel that it’s prudent to wait until we’ve done this forest plan-level consultation” before signing any new decision notices that may affect lynx.
Since there are many steps involved in reaching a decision and since it’s not clear how long it will take for the new lynx assessment to be complete, it’s difficult to tell how many projects besides Fleecer will be affected.
That said, draft decision notices were released for the Little Hogback and Myers fire salvage projects in late September and for the Red Rocks Vegetation project earlier this month. Those decisions will not be finalized, however, until the lynx assessment is complete.
Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says further biological assessment is necessary to ensure the health of lynx and other species.
According to Garrity, his group and the Native Ecosystems Council have been “able to find clear evidence that there are lynx in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and in the Fleecer area.” And he says timber projects could harm this threatened species’ survival.
“The cumulative effect of all that clear-cutting is that there’s not a lot of forest left for wildlife,” Garrity said.
He also argued that the most recent delay is the fault of the Forest Service, which did not do the forest plan-level assessment Christensen has called for.
“They could have had this done a long time ago,” Garrity said. “So if they’re trying to blame us, they just need to look in the mirror.”
But Herrmann said, “The reason we haven’t done a forest-level plan for lynx wasn’t negligence.”
Rather, she emphasized the decision not to do that assessment was a result of the 2007 determination that the forest was not occupied by lynx just two years before the forest plan was adopted.
As for Colter, he worries about the effects further delays will have on Sun Mountain’s lumber business and argues “serial litigants” like Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems, which have sued many times over Forest Service projects, employ a purposeful strategy to “delay these things until they aren’t any good anymore, so the timber isn’t good for making two-by-fours.”
He still thinks the lumber in the affected projected areas can be harvested — but he said the clock is ticking.
“I think Fleecer has some value, but if we don’t salvage it here soon, it’s quickly becoming more and more unusable,” Colter said.
As for when the timber projects might get moving again, Herrmann said this week that the Forest Service’s assessment is in the “draft stage.”
Once it’s complete, it will go the FWS, likely with one of two conclusions: not likely to affect or likely to adversely affect lynx. If it’s the former, the FWS would “typically” have about 30 days to determine whether the agency concurs, according to FWS Fish and Wildlife Biologist Katrina Dixon. If it’s the latter, the FWS would have up to about 135 days to provide a biological opinion.