The Northern Goshawk, a bird the size of a crow, with salt and pepper plumage and a distinct light eyebrow, calls the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest home. For years, the U.S. Forest Service has used the goshawk as an "indicator species" to help inform management decisions in the forest, but if Sarah Johnson, director of the Native Ecosystem Council and a former Forest Service biologist, is correct, the goshawk may soon be a goner.
Johnson makes her assessment based on Sen. Jon Tester's newly proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which establishes more than 600,000 acres of wilderness throughout the state, but also mandates annual harvests totaling 10,000 acres from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and the Three Rivers area of the Kootenai National Forest.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- The marten, an omnivorous weasel, relies on dead trees to burrow past snow during the winter. If Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act eliminates those dead trees, experts say the marten won’t survive.
The current best science, Johnson says, recommends that the goshawk have at least 3,000 acres of mature, older forests at about 6,500 feet on which to hunt. Thin the forest too much and the red tailed hawk, the goshawk's more adaptable cousin, moves in. So the effect of logging, Johnson says, is two-fold.
"First, you take away the old forests that they need for hunting and second, you'll increase the competition with red-tailed hawks," she says. "It's really bad news for the goshawk."
Tester drafted his bill in part to restore the ailing timber industry. If and when the proposal passes, it would offer the state's loggers and mill workers guaranteed work for the next decade.
But Johnson and other experts worry that the forced harvests included in Tester's bill will cut down more than trees. Several species of wildlife depend on dense, low-elevation, old-growth forests for their livelihood and the critics say that the high-elevation wilderness in Tester's bill will serve some animals about as well as a parking lot.
"People think it's a fair exchange," Johnson says. "They say, 'Well, wildlife gets the wilderness and loggers get low-elevation trees.' Goshawks are a low-low elevation species. Most wildlife are."
Andy Stahl, a former forester and current executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, questions why Tester is so eager to address the danger of wildfire with his bill. When Tester introduced the bill July 17 at the slumping RY Timber mill, the senator said, "Unprecedented outbreaks of beetles are turning entire hillsides red with dead and dying trees—trees that can either burn up, or be put to use." Stahl doesn't disagree with Tester, but argues that wildfire is necessary to the land's natural progression.
"Most of the forests that would be logged under Sen. Tester's bill are dominated by lodgepole pine," Stahl says. "They are ecologically similar to Yellowstone National Park's forests. If these forests are not logged, they will burn eventually. In 1988, a bit over 1/3 of Yellowstone burned. The fires created a cornucopia of habitat for wildlife in the park. Today, the park supports the largest assemblage of large mammals in the continental U.S."
One of the animals now thriving in Yellowstone, Stahl says, is the grizzly bear. Several critics have latched onto the bear's plight as an indicator that Tester's bill places jobs over the welfare of wildlife.
"The biggest effect logging has upon large mammals derives from logging roads," Stahl says. "Roads mean much more opportunity for humans to poach and harass large mammals."
In February, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service seeking an injunction against further logging in the habitat of the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population, in the Kootenai National Forest. According to the injunction, the Forest Service estimates that there's a 91.4 percent probability of the Yaak's grizzly population declining.
"This is just going to push them over the edge," says Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "The majority of bears are killed near roads. People don't go out hiking in the wilderness area with guns thinking, 'Let's go shoot a bear,' but they do drive around in their trucks with guns and if they see a bear, they shoot it."
Property owners are one of the constituents who could gain from Tester's bill. More logging means a decrease in wildfire risk, but experts say the dead and dying trees that could be "put to use" are already serving the local ecosystem.
"The pine marten also likes dense forests," says Johnson of the Native Ecosystems Council, referring to the omnivorous weasel also known as an American marten. "Everybody says these dead and dying trees are a bad thing, but they're a tremendous asset for the marten."
Martens, Johnson says, use dead trees to burrow down under the snow in the winter, where they hunt. "If you don't have those logs in the stand, the marten cannot hunt there in the winter," she says.
Johnson's not done ticking off species affected by the bill. There's also the great gray owl, a particularly charismatic, yet helpless species when it's young. The owls leave the nests and, unable to fly, evade predators by hopping around on downed logs until they develop the strength to flap their wings.
The adult owls, Johnson says, live in old goshawk nests.