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Groups sue for wolverines' sake

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Nine months after failing to pressure the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest into conducting an impact study on the effects of snowmobiling through isolated wolverine habitat, several local wilderness groups have taken the U.S. Forest Service back to the courts.

Wildlands CPR, Friends of the Bitterroot and Montanans for Quiet Recreation filed a lawsuit Sept. 7 alleging Forest Service officials violated the National Environmental Protection Act by opening two million acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge to snowmobile use in January 2009. The groups are demanding the agency alter its revised forest plan to address quiet recreation and impacts on wildlife, and request the agency take interim management measures until the alterations can be made.

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"This isn't some theoretical, imagined impact," says Adam Rissien, Wildlands CPR's off-road vehicle coordinator, citing specific snowmobile conflicts with both wolverine populations and backcountry skiers in the Mount Jefferson area. "We know it's happening on the ground."

Officials with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge have no official statement on the lawsuit as they're still in the process of reviewing the litigation. But forest spokesperson Leona Rodreick says the agency stands behind its 2009 forest plan revision.

"We feel it's a good plan, and we did spend a considerable amount of time analyzing all those effects," Rodreick says.

Rodreick adds the Forest Service has no plans to conduct additional impact studies regarding snowmobiles.

Wildlands CPR and Friends of the Bitterroot reached a legal settlement with the Forest Service in December 2009 that effectively ended snowmobile trail grooming in the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area. However, the settlement freed the Forest Service from any obligation to explore the impacts of snowmobile noise on wolverines and other wildlife, data both wilderness groups felt were key to understanding how the vehicles fit into winter recreation on the landscape.

"I think we're still demonstrating that there's a lack of really site-specific analysis," Rissien says of the latest lawsuit. "The agency just failed to take a hard look at where it was designating snowmobiles and applying the criteria that it needs to determine if those areas are appropriate for snowmobiles."

This story was updated Sept. 16.

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