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(Reuters) - A federal judge ruled that parts of a plan to manage 2.4-million acres of Flathead National Forest in Montana violated the law because it would imperil grizzly bears, but said he would not throw out the plan.
In a Thursday ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana found that the U.S. Forest Service's 2018 plan relied on an analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that failed to properly address how abandoned roads jeopardize the bears and consequently violated the Endangered Species Act.
The judge said that part of the analysis needed to be redone, but he would not vacate the plan because doing so could have a severe economic impact on the Montana Logging Association, American Forest Resource Council and local communities that depend on the projects set forth in the plan.
The new plan allows for more road construction, which are often essential for timber projects.
Tyler Cherry, a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, which oversees the FWS, declined to comment. The Forest Service could not immediately be reached.
Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represents some of the plaintiffs, said in a statement: "The court correctly rejected the federal government's latest attempt to undermine the recovery of threatened grizzly bears in this key region that is so essential to the species' overall recovery."
In 2019, WildEarth Guardians, the Swan View Coalition and other green groups filed lawsuits accusing the FWS and the Forest Service of disregarding the effect the plan's rollback of obligations requiring revegetating abandoned roads in the Flathead National Forest through a method known as reclamation.
The plaintiffs said that reclamation successfully protected the 1,000 grizzly bears that live in and around the national forest. Bears tend to avoid abandoned roads, but not when they have been reclaimed, the lawsuit said.
When bears avoid abandoned roads, their habitat can be fragmented and their breeding undermined, the ruling said.
In his ruling, Molloy said that FWS failed to "expressly consider" the effects on grizzlies of the forest-management plan that eliminated reclamation requirements.
However, he rejected plaintiffs' bid to vacate the plan, saying that was not an appropriate remedy.
"Without the Revised Plan, eight projects identified by Weyerhaeuser-Montana could not go forward, which would detrimentally impact its business. This sort of significant economic and community-level impact weighs against vacatur," Molloy wrote.
The case is Wildearth Guardians v. Steele, U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, No. 9:19-cv-00056.
For Wildearth Guardians et al: John Mellgren of Western Environmental Law Center
For Swan View Coalition et al: Timothy Preso of Earthjustice
For intervenor-defendants Montana Logging Association and the American Forest Resource Council: Mark Stermitz of Crowley Fleck and Lawson Fite of the American Forest Resource Council