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The Planet

ALERT: Montana Grizzlies at a Crossroads

Despite consensus among biologists that the best thing humans can do to protect grizzly bears is to close roads in essential habitat, federal agencies have for years resisted such closures. Now, however, a federal court has ordered Montana's Flathead National Forest, "the grizzliest forest in the lower 48," to reset timber harvest levels while protecting grizzly bears. Yet without strong pressure from conservationists, the Forest Service may fail to order the closure and reclamation of some of the nearly 4,000 miles of roads that crisscross the Flathead, a measure desperately needed for bears to survive.

This opportunity to force agency action was welcomed by Sierra Club wildlife activists who see it as a precedent-setting example for other national forests that place too much emphasis on timber harvests at the expense of wildlife protection. It also comes as a sorely needed step on the trail to grizzly-bear recovery.

Since July 1975, when the grizzly was listed as a threatened species, the number of clearcuts and roads in its habitat has increased dramatically. Grizzlies now live on less than 2 percent of their original range, and number less than 1 percent of their original population. Even so, last year's Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, promulgated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, greatly disappointed wildlife activists by failing to propose remedies for reversing these negative trends.

Closing roads in the Flathead National Forest and letting them revert to a wild state would have several benefits apart from helping grizzlies to recover. Habitat for elk, white-tailed deer, moose, lynx, and wolverine would be improved, as would water quality for threatened bull trout and west-slope cut-throat trout. Yet motorized-recreation groups, funded by off-road-vehicle manufacturers, have organized opposition to any road closures in the Flathead.

They insist that motorized access should be the highest priority there, regardless of their sport's impact on wilderness and wildlife. The Club's Wildlife Committee warns that the Forest Service could easily be swayed by protests from such "wise use" groups.

To take action:

The comment period ends Nov. 30. Write Joel Holtrop, Forest Supervisor, Flathead National Forest, 1935 Third Ave. E., Kalispell, MT 59901. If possible, convey the following points:

  • Tell him to act now on behalf of grizzlies, other wildlife, water quality and non-motorized recreation.
  • Urge him to apply "updated Lost Silver" standards across the entire forest. These standards, which have been applied to the proposed Lost Silver timber sale, help protect grizzlies by limiting roads. They are based on the best available scientific information and have been endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Remind him that simply putting up gates and earth mounds to keep vehicles out works only 60 percent of the time. Non-essential roads should be returned to their natural state .
  • Insist that he include a strict one-year timetable to implement road reclamation.

For more information:

Contact Adam Ruben, Sierra Club, 101 E. Broadway, Suite 410, Missoula, MT 59802; phone (406) 549-1656.

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