In a victory for Montana environmentalists, a federal appeals court found the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to minimize snow mobile damage on 3.5 million acres of wild lands failed to pass legal muster.
Although the Forest Service plan actually reduced the amount of land open to snow mobiles, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there has been a sharp increase in snow mobile use since the 1980s and improved capability to go into previously unreachable areas.
The appeals court said the USFS failed to provide adequate environmental analysis on the impacts of snowmobiles on big game habitat, including wolverine, moose, deer and elk.
The WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterroot and Quiet Recreation Inc. sued to challenge the USFS designation of 2 million acres of public land in southwest Montana open to motorized vehicles, principally snowmobiles.
“The court gives sensitive wildlife a chance to be free of snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles,” said Bryan Bird, spokesman for WildEarth Guardians in a prepared statement.
This is the first appeals court victory in a challenge of the USFS minimization criteria, intended to reduce research damage and conflicts with people involved in non-motorized activity such as fishing, hunting, hiking, skiing and mountain biking.
In its review of USFS disclosure of a wolverine habitat map, the court noted that the public would not be able to determine the winter range of big game from the map. The USFS agreed.
“If the wolverine habitat prediction map does not accurately depict the big game winter range, and the Forest Service ultimately worked from a different, accurate map, then it is the accurate map that must be disclosed to the public,” the court held.
On designation of winter range for deer elk and moose, the Forest Service “effectively stymied” the public’s ability to challenge agency action, the court said.
“We conclude that the [Environmental Impact Statement] does not provide the public adequate access to information about the impact of snowmobiles on big game wildlife and habitat,” wrote Judge Richard Paez for the panel.
The case was remanded to the Montana district court.
Case: WildEarth Guardians v. US Forest Service, No 12-35434