Lawsuit halts changes to big game habitat management

Following litigation by a coalition of wildlife and sportsmens groups, the U.S. Forest Service has dropped changes to a decades-long big game habitat management strategy in a national forest in Montana.

The Helena National Forest Plan’s big game security standard, known as Standard 4a, was slated to be revised as part of a travel plan within the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Based on the research and recommendations of wildlife biologists, the standard was designed to benefit wildlife populations by mandating that a certain threshold of forest cover be available to provide shelter for elk (Cervus canadensis) and other big game species. The plan states that, in areas where vegetation density is low, fewer roads should be open to motorized traffic during the hunting season.

In revising the travel plan, USFS proposed modifications to Standard 4a removing provisions relating open road access to forest cover. The revisions used acreage and proximity to roads, not density of vegetation, to define secure areas for big game. Without a provision quantifying forest access relative to habitat conditions, some groups were concerned that there would no longer be incentive to conserve vegetation cover and tree density that provides shelter and security for big game.

“[The new security standard] didn’t include a hiding cover component, meaning clear-cut areas could qualify as big game security,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, in a statement.

Environmental groups feared these changes would jeopardize habitat for and threaten populations of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), and other species in addition to elk and other big game. There were also concerns that reduction of big game habitat could displace elk and other species off of public lands, reducing hunting opportunities.

In October, a lawsuit was filed by a coalition of five wildlife and sportsmens groups concerned about the consequences of these changes and the precedent it may set for management on other public lands. The coalition was represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. The litigation accused USFS of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act, and Endangered Species Act by trying to alter Standard 4a without first conducting an environmental assessment on how the changes could impact wildlife.

USFS responded to the lawsuit last week in a letter from Forest Supervisor William Avey. In the letter, Avey publicly withdrew the Record of Decision that would have approved changes to Standard 4a. While the travel plan and other forest management revisions are moving forward, Avey stated that he felt it was in the best interest to abandon revisions to Standard 4a due to cost, effort, and lack of public engagement that would surround the project due to the litigation. He suggested that the issue may be brought up again in the future during other forest management plan revisions.

The Western Environmental Law Center is now working to file a dismissal of the lawsuit.

Header Image: Vegetation cover provides shelter and safety to elk and other big game species. ©Alex Berger