BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge halted a 7,000-acre eastern Idaho logging project in potential lynx habitat near Yellowstone National Park after finding the U.S. Forest Service failed to follow federal laws intended to safeguard the environment.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Candy Dale's decision last week following a lawsuit by environmental groups over the Split Creek timber harvest also affects about 390,000 additional acres in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
"We're thrilled," said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "This is going to protect a lot of habitat that is very important to the recovery of lynx."
The Native Ecosystems Council also took part in the lawsuit filed in May 2011 in U.S. District Court in Idaho challenging a decision by federal forest managers to cut lodgepole pines in the 7,000-acre tract the groups said includes important habitat for threatened lynx.
Those 7,000 acres were part of nearly 400,000 acres designated as lynx habitat in 2001. But the Forest Service in 2005 created a new map that removed that land as lynx habitat, opening it to logging.
Dale ruled the agency's failure to conduct an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act when creating the 2005 map meant decisions based on the map are invalid.
She also said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 erred when agreeing with the Forest Service in a biological assessment that logging the areas wouldn't jeopardize the lynx or its habitat. She said the biological assessment was based on the invalid 2005 map, making the decision a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
"The Court finds that the Forest Service's failure to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for a decision that ultimately opened approximately 400,000 acres of previously protected land to precommercial thinning violated NEPA," Dale wrote. "Moreover, like a house of cards built on an unsound foundation, because the 2005 map was not analyzed under NEPA, the agency's analysis under the ESA — which is based upon the validity of the 2005 map — cannot withstand judicial review."
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In her 50-page decision she ordered both federal agencies to reconsider their decisions based on her findings.
"We're still processing the ruling and what it might mean," said Miel Corbett, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife. "We'll be able to comment at a later time."
Tom Silvey, forester for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, didn't return a call from The Associated Press.
Lynx compare in size to bobcats but are equipped with longer legs and bigger paws, making them more efficient hunters in the deep snow of the boreal forests where they live. A decade ago, the species was deemed a threat for extinction across the lower 48 states based on climate change, timber harvests, expansion of ski areas and off-road vehicles.
Snowshoe hares are a key source of food for Lynx in the winter. The two Montana-based environmental groups argued that commercial thinning of the forests as planned in the Split Creek timber project would remove ground cover needed by snowshoe hare, and as a result eliminate the area as lynx habitat.
Commercial thinning can help produce more profitable timber stands.
"They essentially want a tree farm," Garrity said. "It makes saw timber quicker."
The federal agencies have several options, including appealing Dale's decision or creating an environmental impact statement, a process that typically requires several years to complete.