An environmentalist lawsuit aims to shut down a wildlife enhancement project in Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest because mechanized juniper removal would allegedly disturb sensitive habitat.
Wild lands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council have filed a complaint accusing the U.S. Forest Service of violating federal law by “categorically excluding” the Rowley Canyon Wildlife Enhancement Project from environmental analysis.
The project aims to improve habitat for elk and deer, as well as ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse species by removing up to 85% of juniper trees — which behave like an invasive species — across nearly 1,700 acres in the forest.
The agency claims its “resource specialists have reviewed the proposed action and do not anticipate the proposed project to lead to any significant impacts or extraordinary circumstances,” justifying the categorical exclusion from environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.
However, the environmental plaintiffs claim the project will exacerbate “existing livestock impacts” from grazing with such activities as cutting, grinding and burning juniper near roadless areas and those with wilderness characteristics.
“Project activities will include destruction of sagebrush, sagebrush-bitterbrush, and sagebrush-snowberry communities that may preclude sage grouse recovery in historic habitat,” the complaint said.
Aside from failing to consider the desirable plant and animal species, the Forest Service also didn’t evaluate the cumulative project’s cumulative impacts as required by NEPA, according to the plaintiffs.
“Significance cannot be avoided by terming an action temporary or by breaking it down into small component parts,” the complaint said.
The environmental groups have asked a federal judge to overturn and block the project, remand the decision to the agency, and compensate the plaintiffs for their litigation costs.
Capital Press wasn’t able to reach a representative of the national forest for comment as of press time.
In documents supporting the need for the project, the Forest Service said juniper removal will improve big game winter range, increase grass and shrub diversity and make the area more resilient to fire and other disturbances.
“Research has indicated that complete loss of residual vegetation and high severity wildfire can occur without treatment across variable juniper densities, levels of tree encroachment and a range of sites,” the agency said.