Judge orders new study in dispute over grizzly habitat, saying government broke the law

MISSOULA, Mont. — The federal government broke the law by not addressing flaws in a study it relied on in allowing maintenance of roads in grizzly bear habitat in parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. Forest Service must conduct a new environmental study because it violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which required them to acknowledge that the research was questioned, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled.

Five organizations sued the government in 2004, challenging some decisions by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service that allow thousands of miles of roads to be maintained in the Kootenai, Lolo, Idaho Panhandle and Colville national forests.

The groups contend that about 80 grizzly bears in the area already struggle to survive and that the roads contribute to poaching and mistaken killings. Grizzlies have been under federal protection since 1975.

In approving the road management plan in March 2004, the two agencies relied heavily on a study prepared in 1997 by a biologist from the Idaho Fish and Game Department and one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That study was based on data derived from observing six radio-collared female grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk mountain ranges. The researchers found the bears used more heavily roaded habitats than female grizzlies studied in a nearby ecosystem.

But the researchers acknowledged they did not know whether the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk bears had better habitat options to choose from. A number of other biologists expressed concern about relying too heavily on that study — especially after it was revealed that two of the bears were later killed by humans.

"The judge pinpointed the questions we have been raising about the government's science for years," Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council — one of the groups that sued — said in a written statement.

Tim Preso, a lawyer for the environmental groups, said he was pleased that the judge had "sent the Forest Service back to the drawing board."

Cami Winslow, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said officials there were still reviewing the judge's opinion, but noted that the judge denied two other claims by the environmental groups alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.

The groups that sued were the Cabinet Resource Group, Great Bear Foundation, Idaho Conservation League, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Selkirk Conservation Alliance.