Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A federal court judge is debating whether or not to put a hold on logging projects already being carried out in the foothills of the Anaconda-Pintler Range.

On Tuesday morning, Missoula federal district judge Dana Christensen heard arguments on whether he should grant environmental groups an injunction while their lawsuit challenges a Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest decision on the Pintler Face logging project between Anaconda and Wisdom.

To qualify for an injunction, the plaintiffs must show that they’d be harmed if the project moves forward and that they’ll likely succeed in winning the lawsuit. The two sides argued mainly over whether the project adequately considered existing lynx and grizzly bear habitat and the timing of the legal challenge.

In February, three environmental groups – the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies – sued the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest over the Pintler Face Project, which was approved by Wisdom District Ranger Molly Ryan in September 2021.

The Pintler Face Project is slated to log or burn more than 11,000 acres along the southeastern edge of the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness over the course of five to 10 years. As part of the project, the Forest Service plans to clearcut almost 3,500 acres, although it’s spread out across 40 project units. However, clearcuts in 29 of the 40 units are larger than 40 acres. Of those, 11 are larger than 100 acres and three exceed 200 acres. The Beaverhead Deerlodge Working Group and the National Forest Foundation backed the project.

The plaintiffs argued that the project was allowed to go ahead only after the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest, at the direction of Region 1 Forester Leanne Martin, redrew its map of lynx habitat in 2020. When compared to a lynx habitat map created in 2001, the 2020 map reduced the amount of habitat by 1.1 million acres and eliminated 431 lynx management units, including some in the project area, said plaintiffs’ attorney Rebecca Smith.

“This is now the fourth case where plaintiffs have brought similar claims. All found that when lynx habitat is remapped, it is a major federal action under (the National Environmental Policy Act) that does need to undergo at least some kind of NEPA analysis,” Smith said. “Here, we’re looking at an order of magnitude greater than the amount of lynx habitat that was remapped in other cases.”

When Christensen asked why the plaintiffs hadn’t exhausted their administrative challenges before suing the Forest Service, Smith said the lack of public process regarding the 2020 lynx map and then timing of the project made that impossible.

The Pintler Face Project was scoped in 2016, and then public comment on the draft environmental assessment was allowed in 2017. Both occurred before the public saw the new map in 2020, Smith said. The only one opportunity to object was during the administrative appeal process in June 2021. But the plaintiffs didn’t get to see the actual map until a month later during legal discovery related to another lawsuit, so they didn’t know how much had changed. Now, they argue that the Forest Service is using the map as justification that can’t be questioned.

“The project EA says ‘we updated the maps with a better protocol and we have better science and this is a better map that we use,’” Smith said. “Any member of the public reading this is going to think, ‘They updated the mapping protocol and made a more accurate map.’ And in fact, that’s what plaintiffs thought happened at that point.”

The plaintiffs also asked for the injunction because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of writing a new biological opinion of the project’s effect on grizzly bears. This is in response to a new biological assessment the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest wrote in May to address motorized access, wolverines and whitebark pine.

When Christensen asked why the Forest Service decided to write a new assessment, Erika Furlong, attorney for the U.S. Forest Service, said it was in response to the plaintiffs’ claims in the lawsuit and other recent court opinions. The original biological opinion did not consider illegal road use.

Furlong added that the Fish and Wildlife Service should have the biological opinion done by July 15, which is when logging work is supposed to start. The Forest Service also claims that the project will benefit grizzlies because some roads will be closed after the work is done.

Of the four subprojects, the commercial harvest on Pintler Face 1 is almost complete. When it’s done, the crews from Iron Pine Company will move over to start the commercial logging on Pintler Face 4. Due to goshawk nests in the Pintler Face 2 area, commercial logging can’t begin until August but Julie Weis, attorney for the logging intervenors, said work in the three areas will most likely be done by February 28.

When Christensen asked why the plaintiffs waited until this past February to file a lawsuit, Smith said the plaintiffs would have filed earlier but no environmental attorneys, including herself, were available. Smith said “it was a matter of supply and demand.” After the Trump administration rolled back many environmental protections, environmental attorneys have been in high demand.

But Furlong said the delay in filing a lawsuit brought into question whether the plaintiffs actually suffered any harm. In addition, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies had filed other lawsuits since September 2021, Furlong said.

“Not until two-and-a-half years later, when both the Forest Service and contract holders invested in the project and 44% of the salvage work had occurred, did plaintiffs move for an injunction,” Furlong said. “If plaintiffs were truly harmed, surely these sophisticated environmental plaintiffs would prioritize this case appropriately.”

Christensen said he’d consider the arguments and get a ruling out as soon as possible.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

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