Forest crews are spending more time examining trees in the Hyalite and Sourdough drainages this year with hopes they’ll finally advance a timber project that’s been tied up in court for years.

Bozeman District Ranger Corey Lewellen said this week that the U.S. Forest Service is ramping up prep work for the nearly 4,700-acre Bozeman Municipal Watershed project, a mix of logging and burning meant to decrease the severity of any wildfire that hits the two drainages that make up the town’s water supply.

The project, approved in 2011, is still blocked by an injunction a federal judge ordered over potential harm to Canada lynx. The order directed the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the 2009 designation of critical habitat for the large cats.

Lewellen said the Forest Service received a biological opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service last December and is now waiting for Department of Justice attorneys to file it with the court of U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen and request the injunction be lifted. With that in mind, he has more people out making sure they know what the land included in the project looks like, and what changes have come in the intervening eight years — like any increases in disease or insect infestations.

“We’ve always had this project as a high priority,” Lewellen said. “But now that we’re getting hopeful to start moving forward, we’ve got additional folks out on the ground doing survey work.”

But there’s of course no guarantee the injunction will be lifted, and even if it is, it may not be the end of the court fight. Lifting the injunction would also give the plaintiffs in the case, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a chance to appeal over other claims where the judge found in the Forest Service’s favor.

Mike Garrity, the group’s executive director, said they would consult their attorneys and decide whether an appeal would be appropriate. One issue involved in the case that came to mind was the use of helicopters in grizzly bear habitat.

“Grizzly bears are known to flee from low-flying helicopters,” Garrity said.

Forest Service officials approved the project in November 2011. The project covers 4,675 acres, most of it between Hyalite and Sourdough, according to the decision notice filed by the Forest Service that year. Of that, about 3,100 acres would see some sort of thinning, most of that done with a tractor or helicopter. More than 1,500 acres are booked for prescribed burning.

The project would be done alongside similar work by the city of Bozeman, which owns land in the area and has a water treatment plant that draws water from Sourdough Creek. Brian Heaston, a senior engineer with the city, said the city is waiting for the injunction to be lifted before any work goes forward because they want to do both projects simultaneously to limit the impact to people who recreate there.

He added that it’s important to ensure the water going into the treatment plant is clean, and that the city worries what would happen if a fire ran through and ash ended up flowing into the creek every runoff season.

“If we get a big fire start up there and it turns into a moon scape, there’s going to be some issues,” Heaston said.

After the project was first approved, Garrity’s group sued over it and another project south of Big Timber, called the East Boulder project. The judge, Christensen, found in their favor and ordered the Forest Service to consult again with the Fish and Wildlife Service following the designation of critical habitat for Canada lynx before either could go forward. The cats are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Around the same time, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center sued the Forest Service over lynx guidelines included in 20 forest plans because of the critical habitat designation. Christensen was also the judge in that case, and he decided in Cottonwood’s favor but didn’t bar any projects, instead ordering the Forest Service to revisit the lynx guidelines. That consultation is finished, Forest Service officials said this week.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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