Several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit over a U.S. Forest Service livestock grazing plan near Yellowstone National Park, alleging that the decision will lead to more conflicts with federally protected grizzly bears.
The groups, which include Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Sierra Club, Friends of the Bitterroot, Wildearth Guardians and Gallatin Wildlife Association, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the East Paradise Range Allotment Management Plan.
The groups argue that allowance and expansion of grazing in grizzly bear recovery areas and travel corridors will lead to more conflicts, resulting in the deaths of more bears. They ask the court to reverse the decision and order additional environmental analysis of the plan’s impacts on the bruins.
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“The best available science reveals steps need to be taken to help facilitate grizzly bear movement and connectivity between subpopulations to fully recover the species in the lower 48 states,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups. “This decision does just the opposite. It hinders recovery by increasing human-bear conflict situations that don’t end well for the bears.”
Six livestock grazing allotments make up the plan on this portion of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, located southeast of Livingston. The Suce Creek, South Sixmile and Mill Creek allotments will remain vacant under the plan, while the Pine Creek, Elbow Creek, and North Sixmile allotments will continue to be grazed, in some cases with expanded dates and range.
When announcing the decision, the Forest Service said the plan strikes a balance between ecological values and multiple uses of the areas. In response to the lawsuit Monday, the agency said grazing is an appropriate use of National Forest system lands and environmental analysis supports the decision.
“The grizzly bear analysis and the East Paradise Decision are consistent with the 1987 Gallatin Forest Plan, for which this decision was signed under and the 2016 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy,” said spokesperson Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan. “Livestock grazing on public lands does have the potential to result in conflict as was disclosed in the environmental analysis; however, in this area there has been little to no conflict between livestock and bears. The Forest (Service) consulted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and they concurred with our assessment in the Biological Opinion.”
The Forest Service issued an environmental assessment detailing potential effects of the plan on habitat and wildlife. Its decision concluded that a more rigorous analysis, called an environmental impact statement, was unnecessary due to the level of impacts.
The groups argue that conclusion was incorrect, pointing to the need for habitat connectivity and a shift in food sources to a more meat-based diet due to declining whitebark pine. Bears that target meat tend to see more livestock conflicts, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also alleges that the agencies’ use of a 1998 “baseline” analysis of the area is flawed. The baseline essentially details where grazing was taking place and by how many animals, with a goal of not expanding beyond those levels. But the groups argue that the baseline was never fully analyzed and is now outdated.
“The 1998 baseline was designed as habitat-based delisting criteria for the 1993 grizzly bear recovery plan,” the lawsuit states. “The 1998 baseline is not a proxy or surrogate for analyzing the effects of an action on grizzly bears or grizzly bear recovery.”
The groups also argue that the wildlife service’s conclusions, because they are based on the 1998 baseline, are also flawed and thus violated the Endangered Species Act.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.