Development plan breaks consensus on grizzlies

 

The pact worked out last year between Plum Creek Timber Co. in Montana's Swan Valley and some federal and state agencies looked like a good deal for both bears and loggers.

Then this May, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund served notice it will file suit to negate the agreement. What's changed is Plum Creek's announcement that it might sell some of its land in the area to developers.

The idea was to protect four corridors of grizzly habitat linking the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Only about 10 bears survive in the Missions, and biologists say they must be able to intermingle with the Bob Marshall bears to avoid extinction. The corridors were chosen because bears need to cross the valley without running into too many humans.

The pact also calls for coordinating timber harvests between the Forest Service and Plum Creek, reducing road access, and not logging on 369,299 acres. Seven 50-square-mile areas would also be closed to human activity in the valley each year; four others would still be open.

But opposition groups, including the Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, say any proposed land sales, timber cuts or related road building violate the Endangered Species Act. They want the pact replaced by practices based on the best scientific data for grizzly bears, not the convenience of loggers.

Friends' spokeswoman Arlene Montgomery says the plan was flawed from the beginning. "The agreement doesn't really protect permanent corridors and doesn't limit road density," she says. "There are no corridors specifically earmarked as roadless."

The proposed land sales came to light when a January newspaper article said Plum Creek planned to sell 150,000 acres of its holdings in the state, some of them in the Swan Valley. Montgomery says, "We suspected there would be sales after they hired a developer from Seattle to look over their lands." Housing development in the valley has already blocked many historical corridors used by the bears.

Dale Harms, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont., says his agency did not know of the proposed sales while negotiating the pact. "Plum Creek says it's studying four areas in the Swan for potential sales and they haven't made any decisions," he says. "Until we know the specifics, we don't know what impact it will have." He insists the compact still allows the isolated Mission bears to cross into the Bob Marshall with relatively little danger. No matter what corridors the grizzlies choose, however, all must cross State Highway 82.

Plum Creek says it remains committed to the conservation agreement whether any land sales go through or not. Spokeswoman Kris Backes says only about 2,500 acres is being considered for sale in the Swan, most of it lake and creek front property. "All sales will be consistent with the agreement," she says. "Some of the options would include selling the land to conservation buyers or making land exchanges."

Plum Creek has good reason to pacify the environmental group. If the compact is dissolved, resulting land-use restrictions enacted under the Endangered Species Act could be more restrictive for the timber company.

For more information, contact Doug Honnold at the SCLDF office in Bozeman, Mont., 406/586-9699; Jerry Sorensen at Plum Creek Timber Co. in Columbia Falls, Mont., 406/892-6479; or Keith Hammer at Swan Valley Coalition, 406/755-1379.

Mark Matthews reports from Missoula, Montana.

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