MT BHA files Objection on Blackfoot Travel Plan

elk-securityProject Administrative Unit:  Helena National Forest

Lead Objector:  Greg Munther, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Lead Objector:  Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Rules associated with Objection are cited and discussed in each individual objection.

Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is an all volunteer organization comprised of Montana resident hunters and anglers who are dedicated to protecting and enhancing Montana’s public land wildlife and fisheries habitats, as well as fostering traditional non-motorized hunting and fishing opportunities for the present, as well as future generations.  Many of our members hunt and fish extensively within the public lands of the Helena National Forest.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is a national organization that seeks to ensure North America's outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing in a natural setting, through education and work on behalf of wild public lands and waters.

Previously BHA and/or MT BHA have submitted comments on the Blackfoot Travel Plan and Amendments in letters dated October 7, 2009, November 22, 2010, March 11, 2013.   We submitted separate Objections to the Blackfoot Travel Plan on May 6, 2014.  Each of the subjects contained in these Amendment Objections were identified in one or more of these three letters. The Montana BHA co-chairman, along with other conservation representatives met with Helena Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan on or about April 15, 2013.  On April 2, 2014 we attended a Lincoln Restoration Committee meeting in Lincoln with Ranger Amber Kamps present, as well as representatives of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks where we participated in the Travel Plan/Amendments  discussion.

The following are objections pertaining to the Helena National Forest’s Blackfoot Forest Plan Amendments  by Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Big Game Security Objection

Premise for Objections: Large blocks of secure public land big game habitat are essential to Montana big game hunters, as well as to serve as a major ecological component to the Helena National Forest.    Secure summer range habitat allows elk and other species to choose and locate in the best vegetation to allow elk calves to be exposed to minimal disturbance and choose the most nutritious vegetation for both lactating cow elk and to build body fat and reserves to survive the tough Montana winters.  During fall, with insufficient “elk security”, bow and rifle hunters in pursuit of elk can either kill too many bull elk or drive elk to private lands where they are generally unavailable to average Montana hunters.  Currently some Blackfoot EHUs have less than 10 bulls/100 elk cows surviving the hunting season due to insufficient “elk security”.   Elk currently pushed to private land due in large part to abundant motorized access is a serious problem already occurring throughout the Blackfoot Travel Plan area.  Elk on private lands are not available to be harvested sufficiently to keep cow elk numbers at elk management objectives, defined by the Montana Elk Management Plan.  Insufficient security also allows too many bull elk to be killed, thus not meeting Elk Management Plan objectives and herd reproductive viability.  Without adequate security, elk hunting opportunities are threatened by shortening seasons, hunting by permit only or other preventable situations.

Objection 1.   The new Travel Plan Objection Period preceded the Big Game Security Amendment Objection Period, although both are inappropriately linked and and a decision on one affects the outcome of the other.   

It is difficult for the public to request changes on a Forest Plan amendment without being able to see how these changes would affect the Blackfoot Travel Plan, because the public comment period and Objection period for the Travel Plan have ended.  In addition, the Amendments were not proposed in the draft plan stage therefore public comment was stifled on the Amendment proposals. 

Unfortunately we as publics are forced to assume the two processes are dependent on each other, rather than the Security Amendment being judged on its own merits.  Therefore we were forced to previously comment on the Blackfoot Travel Plan assuming the amendment would be adopted exactly as proposed in Alternative B.

Objection 2  The changing conditions cited by the Helena NF in justifying a new big game security amendment to replace Big Game Security Standard 4a are instigated of necessity largely because the Lincoln Ranger District and Helena National Forest has failed for 28 years to follow guidance in their own 1986 Helena Forest Plan.   If the Lincoln RD had followed the goals, objectives and standards of the Helena  Forest Plan direction since it was signed to guide vegetation harvest and motorized route management, the resulting land/motorized travel conditions  would have largely negated the need for this proposed Amendment.

However, the Purpose and Need for this amendment is deceptive and does not acknowledge the primary reason for initiating these Amendments is largely due to not implementing their own Forest Plan for the preceding 28 years.

The Helena National Forest Plan was completed in 1986 and specified that roads were to managed aggressively to assure elk security (Standard 4).   However,   an undisclosed amount of timber roads were built since 1986 and many were routinely left open to public use.  The FEIS fails to document the cumulative impact of 28 years of road construction and road-related  management decisions, as well as 28 years of timber harvest decisions.  Furthermore, many miles of user created routes were accepted as legitimate and left open to unregulated public use.  Additionally, single track trails were allowed to be converted to ATV routes by users.  Timber cover that served as an essential and important measurable component  to  elk security standard , was routinely harvested.  Now, after 28 years of mismanagement the Helena Forest states they cannot meet the cover and motorized density requirements of the current standard.   For example the recent roadside clearing project encompassing nearly the entire District consisted of clearing virtually all trees for up to 150 feet each side of the entire road distance, dramatically increasing view distance by hunters, and creating a wide, open corridor.   User created motorized trails were allowed to be constructed and used, that often further diminished elk security.  Law enforcement of formal road and trail closures has been nearly non-existent in the Blackfoot, a fact that has been repeatedly pointed out by conservation groups.  The Forest has admitted it has been unable to enforce the existing travel plan.  Just recently the Helena has recently tried to rectify the failure to enforce motorized travel restrictions some 28 years after the Plan was signed.  In summary, the Forest has largely ignored important elements of the big game security standards and other Forest Plan direction and Standards contained in the 1986 Forest Plan for 28 years.  This inaction and failure of Forest Supervisor and District Ranger leadership to manage in compliance with the 1986 Plan has been essentially a failure of the public-trust contract with the public.   The “death-by-a –thousand- cuts” results in the current  Blackfoot portion of the Helena Forest condition, now  largely fragmented and laced with unnecessary roads and motorized routes.   Now the Helena National Forest is proposing to downgrade the big game security standard , lowering the bar so to speak, to more closely reflect current deteriorated conditions.  

The Forest concludes that it cannot meet the current cover requirement, and therefore is proposing to drop any cover requirement in the Amendment.    Yes, we concur that insect and disease outbreaks have increased viewing distance on some portions of the Blackfoot.  However, the remaining standing dead and resulting downfall can still provide sufficient cover and difficulty in hunter access, but there is little guidance toward retention of existing cover elements.

Rather than define a big game security amendment that is designed around needs of big game security, the Helena has chosen a trial and error method, rather than a science based method of defining big game security.  It chose some rather arbitrary spacial parameters and mapped the Blackfoot with a proposed travel plan and then evaluating how much “security” is present with these non-science based parameters.    There is no scientific evidence that a 1000 acre patch is sufficient space for elk or other big game, especially when topography, cover, and large openings are ignored.  Because cover was inconveniently lacking on parts of the Blackfoot, the amendment Alt B chose to ignore cover as a security element, even if common sense and science supports cover as an important security element.   Elk choose cover when hunted and cover for bedding security.  Under pressure they rarely leave cover during daylight.  A recent draft paper by both agencies stated “Both agencies supported the idea that forested cover was needed to reduce elk vulnerability during the hunting seasons; otherwise, forested cover influences the way animals use habitat, and the ability of habitat to meet elk needs for growth and welfare requirements (Christensen et al. 1993).”

The amendment changes security calculations so adjacent non-Forest Service lands are no longer calculated as part of elk security within an Elk Unit.  The proposed amendment instead calculates that the national forest lands recommended security levels be 50% from 9/1-12/1.  However, if the existing situation, depending on Alternative selected, can be far lower than 50% (as low as 24%) and still satisfy the new elk security standard as long as the level in the future does not go below the existing level.  However, in several EHUs, the possibility of improving the current level of elk security is substantially greater than the chosen Alternative.  For example, the Ogden Mtn unit selected alternative provides for only 24% cover, while Alternative 3 provided 40% elk security. Because private lands were inconvenient to track and manage, the new Big Game Security Standard ignores juxtaposition, condition or uses taking place on adjacent private lands.  Therefore the desire for a new Travel Plan that justified retention of many roads and trails drove the formation of a Big Game Security amendment, rather than a properly constructed , science based elk security standard driving the formation of a new travel plan

Requested Resolution:   Immediately modify the new Travel Plan to close and obliterate/decommission  all roads and user created trails constructed, reconstructed or user created routes allowed since the 1986 Plan was signed.     This step would begin to align the Forest with the original direction of Big Game Standard 4.

Requested Resolution: Consider instead of Alternative B, continue to administer Big Game Security Standard 4a with the modification of using the current cover standard where sufficient cover is present, or add a recognition that (add)  the natural occurring level of forest cover considering previous harvest and insect and disease has increased viewing distance.  In addition, the modified 4a should clarify standing dead and down material would not be salvaged where security levels are below the current standard by EHU.

Objection 3.  The new Big Game Security Standard was not developed by a peer reviewed process or set of science based security parameters.

We believe there the Blackfoot process was basically a trial and error of newly constructed security elements such as size and shape of blocks and distance from roads, and then  a “lets see how it looks on the ground or map” , rather than a peer review of best available science.   The inapplicability of Hillis paradigm (as substantiated by letters from primary authors of the Hillis paper) originally proposed  left the Forest with little to base a new standard.   We can see nothing in the big game security (particularly elk) literature that indicates a 1000 acre patch size is sufficient.  We find no cover requirement which means open ridges, clearcuts or other large openings will be part of the security acreage calculations.  We also find that security definition ignores, nor proposes to rectify the existing situation including the existing road prisms that slice and fragment and  serve as easy conduits for hunters is not accounted for in the new Standard.   Hunters who may be able negotiate heavy downfall at only 1 mph can walk at 3-4 miles per hour on a road prism and bicycle at 5-10 mph.  Effective the quality of security is therefore substantially reduced.  In addition, reduction of dead and down through timber salvage or firewood operations, as well as construction of road prisms reduces the effectiveness of “elk security areas”.   Furthermore, the Standard does not insure future management activities such as road construction, timber harvest or salvage will not be allowed further fragment these already minimum levels of secure habitat.

Amendment Alt B allows management activities, including road construction and vegetation removal even if such activities further reduce Big Game Security.  Further, there is no part of Amendment Alternative B that defines “temporary” disruption of security or “temporary” roads.  We have seen “temporary roads” remaining on national forest lands for more than 5 years.

Requested  Resolution:   Modify the new Standard to ensure areas designated as elk security are not negatively compromised by future road construction or management decisions, reconstruction or use related to future vegetative management or other management activities.  In addition to procedures identified in EIS p 355 paragraph 4, we request that clear direction that all future road and vegetation work contracts in “security areas” will not create or improve routes for human travel and routes reopened for use  and will restore barriers or inhibitors to equal or greater existing levels following use.

Requested Resolution:  The Decision must clarify existing cover effectiveness should not be reduced by timber management or other vegetation projects  in EHUs where security areas of the national forest comprise less than 50% of the public ownership of the EHU.

Requested Resolution:  The decision must state that any new roads, (other than collector or arterial roads already in place) constructed or existing roads reconstructed  in elk security areas in EHUs having less than 50% elk security  must be required to be completely recontoured as part of project or authorized use within one year of project completion.  No brushing, reconstruction nor clearing of existing year long closed roads be permitted in “security polygons” within an EHU having less than 50%  elk security.  “Temporary” must be clearly defined as specified time perior for any amendment clause permitting forest management activities.   In our opinion, temporary should be defined as no more than one calendar year.

Objection 4.  The acceptance and support of the new Big Game Security  Amendment Alt B by MT FWP was predicated on Alternative 3 of the new Travel Plan, not Alternative 4 as selected by the Forest. 

The Forest Plan requires (Standard   4h) that the Helena work “in conjunction with” MT FWP to manage roads to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat.   Almost certainly, MT FWP believed that if they supported this Amendment, that the Travel Plan would be that reflected in Alternative 3, not 4.    While more decommissioning in Alternative 4 would be favorable, leaving  and upgrading the Gould-Helmville motorized trail slices through what was thought by FWP to be secure habitat.  Likewise, leaving the Stonewall trail open cuts into secure habitat assumed to be present if they supported this Amendment.

Objection 5.  If Amendment Alt B is adopted as written, The Decision Notice and FEIS must state to provide consistent bull cow ratios above that stated in the Elk Management Plan will likely jeopardize the current 5 week general hunting season.

Objection 6.  The Big Game Security Amendment B states that if the resulting security level is below the 50% threshold, then the Forest must merely not let the level worsen.   This tactic is easy to implement, however it compromises important amounts of security rather than direct management to moving the security level up to 50% deemed satisfactory.

Any new Amendment should direct management to immediate opportunities to improve levels and quality of security where it is below the desired level of 50%.  Simple and relatively easy decisions, including closing the Gould Helmville trail to motorized use, would significantly move the security levels  toward 50% in both Poorman and Ogden EHUs. 

Requested Resolution:  Specify  in the Big Game Security Amendment that the Forest must act on every opportunity to improve levels of big game security where security as defined is presently below 50% of an EHU.  Further, there should be a relatively short time period specified, not to exceed 5 years, to reach 50% level of big game security in each EHU.. 

The Security Amendment must be clarified to state, where security of an EHU exceeds 50%, the Forest should use all means feasible to retain existing levels of big game security.

Recommended Resolution:   Because the Elk Security Amendment work with FWP acknowledges that a 50% or greater security level is preferable and because NEPA specifies that all Alternatives presented must be viable, 1) modify the chosen alternative to require closure, storage or decommissioning motorized routes to the maximum elk security displayed in any Alternative (including Alternative 3 closures)  and 2)direct immediate and  future opportunities in  road management to improve security until the percentage of elk security in each EHU is at least 50%.

Nevada Mountain Roadless (R-1) Objection

We believe the R-1 Amendment to allow a motorized route to traverse and be upgraded to accommodate a different class of vehicle and  more vehicles(Appendix 1 p 232)  in Nevada Mountain Roadless Area violates both the Goals, Objectives and  intent of the Forest Plan as well as Roadless area direction, and other federal mandates.

Two Forest Plan goals are particularly relevant.  Goal 7 states “Maintain or enhance sufficient grizzly bear habitat to meet population recovery goals established in the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan for the Helena Forest.    We believe legalizing a motorized route and improving it to accommodate a different class of motorized vehicle and more users does not meet the NCDE Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy which states that limit miles of open routes in roadless habitats.  Grizzly bears, including a sow with triplet cubs were documented to occur along this route. This Amendment moves away from the Goal of the Forest Plan and therefore is inappropriate.

Secondly, Goal 15 states “ develop and implement a road management program with road use and travel restrictions that are responsive to resource protection needs and public concerns.”  The 1986 Helena Forest Plan designated trail # 467 within the Nevada Roadless Area as non-motorized.   While the direction does not specify motorized routes such as ATV trails (which were barely on the horizon at the time), the intent is clearly to restrict motorized use where it conflicts with resource values.  In the case of Nevada Mountain Roadless Area, it is important elk security and preferred to be non-motorized by Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Multiple wolverines have been documented in the Nevada Roadless Areas, which could be listed as Threatened in the near future.  The area is within critical habitat for Canada lynx, a Threatened species, and numerous lynx have been documented to use the area.  The FEIS failed to document how changing class of vehicle and upgrading such a motorized trail will affect lynx, wolverine and grizzly bear, as well as distribution of elk.  Because this Amendment moves away from meeting Goal 15, it is an inappropriate Amendment.

 Facilitating legal motorized routes through this roadless area dramatically reduce the wilderness characteristics of Nevada Mountain Roadless Area.  Any chance of Wilderness designation after adoption and implementation of this Amendment is reduced to extremely remote.   The Nevada Roadless Area has been included in past Wilderness Bills.   This decision is a non-retrieval commitment of the Wilderness  resource.

Roadless Rule, 36 CFR 294; 66 Fed Reg 3244 (Jan 12, 2001) states the exactly the situation that is being proposed to weaken roadless area protection for Nevada Mountain Roadless Area :  “Local land management planning  efforts may not always recognize the national significance of inventoried roadless areas and the values they represent in an increasingly developed landscape.”  Further the Roadless Rule EIS states: “ Inventoried roadless areas provide large, relatively undisturbed blocks of important habitat for a variety of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife and plants, including hundreds of threatened, endangered, and sensitive species. In addition to their ecological contributions to healthy watersheds,  many inventoried roadless areas function as biological strongholds and refuges for a number of species and play a key role in maintaining native plant and animal communities and biological diversity (FEIS Vol. 1, 3–123 to 3–124).”

The Blackfoot  R-1 Amendment  is not driven by changed conditions, nor does it move the Forest toward Forest Plan  Goal 7 or 15.  It is a discretionary change merely to facilitate the existing increased levels of  motorized use and expansion of both types and amounts of motorized recreational use in conflict with Goals, Objectives of the Helena Forest, as well as designation and direction related to species protected under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act.  The 1986 Forest Plan was very clear that Nevada Mountain Roadless Area was to be managed as non-motorized.  Failure to implement the Forest Plan direction since 1986 does not justify amending the Forest Plan for convenience.  Since 1986, the management pattern of the Helena tends toward not managing by Forest Plan guidance, but rather amending the Forest Plan when management situations are inconvenient.       This management style  betrays the public trust that assumed a signed written Helena Forest Plan would settle such issues as motorized use in Nevada Mountain roadless area. 

Both these Amendments are Significant and therefore warrant a full EIS, with full disclosure of all impacts.

About Caitlin Thompson