Reduction in elk cover in proposed Little Belt logging project not a concern for FWP

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An overpopulation of elk north of White Sulphur Springs is being cited by the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest as one reason for allowing a reduction in elk hiding cover standards within a proposed logging and prescribed burning project.

“I wish they hadn’t couched the argument the way they did,” said Jay Kolbe, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in White Sulphur Springs.

Despite the way the Forest Service made its argument, FWP doesn’t oppose the project, he added.

“Over the long term, I expect the Horsefly Project to improve elk habitat quality and quantity, especially since there will not be a net increase in open motorized route density after the project is complete,” Kolbe said in an email.

Effects on elk hiding cover is just one of many analyses inside the preliminary environmental assessment for the proposed 20,600-acre Horsefly vegetation project, located in the Little Belt Mountains.

The mountains are a popular elk hunting region that attract sportsmen and women from as far away as Great Falls, Helena and Billings. The main portion of the forest work would be conducted in the Miller Gulch and Newlan Creek drainages, which are bisected by the Kings Hill Scenic Byway (Highway 89). Almost three-quarters of the project area has been identified by Meagher County as wildland-urban interface.

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is accepting public comment on the proposed project through Feb. 10. An open house will be held Jan. 29 in White Sulphur from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Meagher County Training Center (103 West Crawford St.).

Wildlife habitat

Part of the aim of the Horsefly vegetation project in the Little Belt Mountains is to increase aspen stands which provide food and cover for wildlife like this whitetail deer.

Plan amendments are necessary to address elk hiding cover because some areas don’t meet the Forest Service standards now, said Allen Byrd, who led the USFS team working on the Horsefly project.

Elk hiding cover requirements have been cited by environmental groups as a reason for challenging past logging projects in Montana.

Under the Forest Service’s proposal, the requirement for 30% hiding cover is not possible in two watersheds and the logging would “further reduce hiding cover below the standard in up to four watersheds that are currently below the 30% hiding cover threshold.”

Exempting the project from hiding cover standards “could change some elk use patterns within the project area, according to the environmental assessment. “This could result in some elk moving off National Forest lands onto adjacent private lands for some period of time. However, changes in elk distribution associated with the reductions in hiding cover are uncertain.”

Kolbe wrote, “FWP recognizes that the big game security analyses that the Forest Plan describes have proven impractical for the Forest Service to accomplish and that the agency regularly uses site-specific Forest Plan amendments that allow big game habitat analyses to be done differently than the Forest Plan describes.”

Elk habitat

Elk hiding cover would be reduced in portions of the Horsefly vegetation project proposed for the Little Belt Mountains near White Sulphur Springs.

In part to justify the amendments, the EA points out that elk are substantially above Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ population objectives in the area. Because of the large elk herds the White Sulphur Springs region was one of the first to test out extended elk shoulder hunting seasons. The hunts have been popular, boosting the town’s economy during what can be a slow winter season, as well as helped landowners disperse elk off their private lands while reducing elk numbers.

“If that population is at or over objective, that’s something we’re going to consider,” said Jennifer Becar, acting public affairs officer for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Noting the high elk numbers, the EA said that when the Forest Plan was signed in 1986 a “forest-wide elk population potential of 8,500 elk was adopted. Now there are more than 20,000 elk “within those hunting districts that overlap with a majority of the Forest. This is well in excess of the elk population potential estimated at the time the Forest Plan was crafted.”

“The elk ‘objectives’ the Forest Service adopted in its 1986 Forest Plan are different (and much lower) than the 2005 management objectives FWP currently uses to evaluate elk populations,” Kolbe wrote. 

The EA goes on to state: “it is not possible to predict what level of change might have an impact on elk distribution. Similarly, the effect of a reduction in hiding cover is not directly relatable to changes in elk behavior. Elk responses to changes in hiding cover may be masked or outweighed by elk responses to open road densities and hunting pressure, and other things such as weather, forage availability and learned behavior.”

Hard to see in the trees

Elk lounge in a aspen grove which provide a place to rub antlers for scent marking as well as to remove antler velvet.

Kolbe said FWP has been less concerned about reduced hiding cover than roads that provide hunters easier access to elk. Seasonal closures make some forest roads unusable during the hunting season.

According to the EA, “41.3 miles of temporary road construction (28.9 miles of new temporary road construction and 12.4 miles of reconstruction of existing non-system routes) and approximately 200 ground based landings are proposed.”

In addition, about 41 miles of existing roads would be improved during the life of the project, which could be 10 to 20 years. Another 24 miles of roads that had been closed to motorized travel would be eliminated.

The roads would provide access to about 5,100 acres of timber for commercial harvest. Another 5,200 acres is proposed for prescribed burns.

“What they aren’t going to log they are going to burn,” said Sara Johnson of Native Ecosystems Research, a group that frequently challenges forest projects. “It’s kind of a shocking proposal.”

Combined with other forest projects nearby in the Little Belt and Castle mountains, Johnson questioned where wildlife management fit into the Forest Service’s planning.

“That whole landscape is going to be hit hard,” she said.

The Horsefly project is meant to restore the area to a condition closer to what it had been prior to the successful suppression of forest fires during the past 100 years. The loss of such natural fires has led to decadent stands of pine that are susceptible to insect infestations. Logging would also remove trees that have already been killed by insect outbreaks.

“Forest succession and lack of disturbance has resulted in a loss of grassland, shrubland, and aspen,” according to the preliminary EA.

Forest signs off on Castle Mountains 'restoration project'

Restoration

In addition to logging and wildland fire reduction, the project proposes to include fencing along streams to exclude livestock to prevent streambank damage and restore vegetation, as well as stream channel alterations like placement of large rocks or logs to lessen scouring.

Some portions of the streams are targeted for willow and alder planting to help increase riparian vegetation. About 240 acres were also selected for whitebark pine planting. Whitebark pine was considered for endangered species protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but was denied.

“Whitebark pine is considered a keystone species because it regulates runoff by slowing the progress of snowmelt, reduces soil erosion by initiating early succession after fires and other disturbances, and provides seeds that are a high-energy food source for some birds and mammals,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The announcement of the proposed project’s EA occurred days before R Y Timber issued a press release saying it was idling its Townsend sawmill due to a lack of logs. The company blamed lawsuits by environmental groups for delaying logging. An estimated 70 employees will be affected.

“The company remains hopeful that future court rulings will reverse the anti-forest management decisions of the past and allow sustainable timber harvest into the future,” the R Y’s statement said. “A sufficient and stable timber supply is necessary before the Townsend mill can be restarted.”

In a Monday press release Montana Sen. Steve Daines called the environmental groups challenging forest logging projects “fringe extremists” who are using “obstructionist litigation to destroy Montana timber jobs.”

One of those litigators is Michael Garrity, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He dismissed R Y’s arguments noting that a Missoulian article published in July on British Columbia mill closings quoted the director of the Montana Wood Products Association saying there is “too much wood in the system” for U.S. mills at a time when there has been a slowdown in construction.

“Steve Daines is advocating socialism for billionaires,” Garrity said in an email, referring to the owners of R Y Timber.

The public has until Feb. 10 to provide feedback on the preliminary EA, which is available online at (bit.ly/HLC_HorseflyProject). Questions about the project, comment period, or upcoming public meeting may be directed to John Casselli, project team leader, via email at john.casselli@usda.gov.

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