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Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy bristled last Thursday at a 2007 Forest Service determination that helicopter logging in the Kootenai National Forest would not seriously impact grizzly bear habitat.

Government attorneys admitted during the July 17 oral arguments in Missoula that the choppers would probably cause the displacement of bears during logging, but the activity would not cross the line of what the agency deems “a significant adverse effect.” Molloy then asked what those standards entail, a question that caught lawyers representing the Forest Service at a momentary loss for words.

“So you can just run these animals around as much as you want?” the judge replied. “Where’s the line of demarcation? Is it just how somebody feels that morning? Is it what they had for breakfast?”

As of press time, Molloy has not yet issued a formal decision on the arguments laid out in court. On July 18, the judge asked both parties to file supplemental briefs sourcing their information, complaining that some of the facts presented the previous day didn’t appear to hold water.

The lawsuit, filed in December by Alliance for the Wild Rockies, challenges a decision by the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to go ahead with the Northeast Yaak Project, which authorizes the logging of 1,777 acres of Kootenai forestland. Conservation groups fear the logging efforts will deplete the already slim grizzly bear population of the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, declining with 91.4 percent certainty, according to a 2005 government report.

“The Forest Service is presiding over the demise of the grizzly bear in the Cabinet-Yaak,” Wild Rockies attorney Tim Bechtold says. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Lisa Russell, an attorney for the government, points out that all individual elements of the Northeast Yaak Project sum passed due review under the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Forest Management Act. “The court should defer to the agencies’ expert decisions,” she argues.
Forest Service spokesman Willie Sykes says the agency will not comment on pending litigation.

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