Bozeman Municipal Watershed Logging Project

Snow falls lightly on pine trees in the Bozeman Municipal Watershed, south of Bozeman on Friday.

Federal officials believe they’ve done what a judge asked and should be able to begin a timber project on public land south of Bozeman, but the environmentalists who stopped the project still disagree.

The U.S. Forest Service earlier this fall asked U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen to lift the injunction blocking the Bozeman Municipal Watershed and East Boulder projects, two projects meant to reduce wildfire fuel. The East Boulder Project is southeast of Big Timber, while the Bozeman project is south of town in the creek drainages that provide the city’s water.

In a brief arguing for the injunction to be lifted, federal attorneys said the Forest Service followed the judge’s order to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the projects’ potential impacts to critical habitat for Canada lynx, a large cat listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The reviews found the projects were “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of lynx” or destroy critical habitat, according to the brief.

But Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the group that filed the lawsuit over the projects in 2012, argued in a brief filed this month that the “cursory analyses” don’t provide enough detail to back up the claim the work won’t be bad for the big cats.

“We don’t think they’ve shown they’re not harming lynx critical habitat,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The ball is now back in the Forest Service’s court, as they have until Dec. 20 to file a brief in response.

“We’re going to defend our analysis and see what the judge has to say,” said Corey Lewellen, Bozeman district ranger for the Forest Service. “We feel like we’ve done the appropriate analysis for the project.”

The dueling briefs have breathed life back into a lawsuit that seemed dormant for a couple of years, after federal courts sided with the environmental groups and blocked the two projects.

The Forest Service approved the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project in 2011. The project calls for about 4,700 acres of thinning and burning in the drainages of Hyalite and Bozeman creeks, which make up Bozeman’s water supply. The city backs the project, too, arguing it’s important for protecting its water treatment facility from the potential for heavy runoff after a large fire.

The Bozeman project was proposed around the same time as the East Boulder Project, which calls for a few hundred acres of logging. Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued over both of them, raising concerns about the impacts to lynx, grizzly bears and more.

A separate case brought by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center around the same time raised the lynx issue across the Forest Service’s entire northwestern region, arguing the agency needed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the 2009 designation of critical habitat for lynx.

That designation had added about 37,000 square miles of critical habitat for the cats — expanding the area protected by federal laws meant to help recover the species.

It made lynx a central issue for the case against the two projects. The judge ruled that the Forest Service needed to take a second look at the individual lynx analyses for both the Bozeman Municipal Watershed and East Boulder and consult the Fish and Wildlife Service on lynx at the regional level. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s finding.

All that analysis work is wrapped up now, at least in the eyes of the Forest Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion on the regional guidelines in 2017 and one for the two projects in 2018, finding that harm to lynx was unlikely, according to the agency’s brief.

Forest officials saw no reason to tweak the design of the projects based on the consultation, according to the brief.

That’s where the Alliance takes issue. Garrity said there are still problems with the projects, like the removal of low-hanging branches, a habitat feature snowshoe hares — the primary prey for lynx — rely on. He said his group is also concerned about the amount of old growth forest involved in the projects.

Ever since the analysis work was done, the Forest Service has preparing for the Bozeman watershed project. Lewellen said his staff has been surveying the area and has begun mapping out what could go into a contract that logging companies would bid for.

But Lewellen — the third district ranger to work on the project — emphasized that nothing more can happen until the injunction is lifted.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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