After more than seven years in development, a final habitat conservation plan for protected fish and wildlife species on state forest lands is being rolled out by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If approved after a 30-day comment period that starts today, the plan would provide measures to minimize the effects of timber harvest and related activities on the threatened grizzly bear, Canada lynx and bull trout, along with providing protections for unlisted westslope cutthroat trout and redband trout.
In return, the 50-year plan would address "incidental take" of those species that may result from management activities on state forest lands.
"It gives [the state] the ability to move forward with a little more certainty about their activities" and less potential for being sued over impacts to threatened species, said Kathleen Ports, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife project manager.
Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan has several concerns about the plan, starting with its 50-year term.
"What do we know is going to be out there 50 years from now?" said Montgomery, who closely monitors management activities on the Swan River State Forest. "I think to give an incidental take permit to any entity for that period of time is wrong. There are too many uncertainties."
Ports said the plan secures conservation commitments from the state.
"From our standpoint, we are expecting benefits to the species," she said.
Ports said concerns were raised that under the 50-year term, the plan would not be accountable for landscape changes caused by climate change.
But the plan does include an adaptive management program for the state and the federal government to respond to long-term natural disturbance.
Efforts to develop a plan for state forest lands got under way in 2003, and it has taken this long due to a variety of circumstances, Ports said.
"When the project started, it was a lot more ambitious than it is now," she said. "The state started with a big list of species. And it just became too difficult to address the needs of all those species, so as the years have gone by we've kind of pared the project down."
The plan would have applied to species such as black-backed woodpeckers, wolves, bald eagles, wolverines and goshawks.
There also were challenges in working through differences between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The state, for example, had to analyze just how its commitments might conflict with a sustained yield policy that mandates annual timber harvest targets on state forest lands.
For grizzly bear conservation, the plan calls for minimizing disturbance and displacement from suitable habitat and providing seasonal habitat security through a "comprehensive access management plan and seasonal restrictions on timber activities."
It contains alternatives calling for existing roads, new roads and temporary roads to be in the range of 1,300 miles and 1,400 miles on state forest lands over the next 50 years. That range deducts expectations for future road reclamation.
Ports said the draft environmental impact statement gave the wrong impression that the state was planning to build between 1,300 and 1,400 miles of new roads over the next 50 years, which Montgomery regarded as a "phenomenal" excess.
For protecting fisheries habitat, the final plan proposes a stream buffer zone for timber harvest that would be increased from 25 feet in the draft to 50 feet in the final.
Considering that the U.S. Forest Service has a 300-foot buffer zone, Montgomery considers the setback in the state plan inadequate.
Implementation of the plan will be funded through the state's forest management program, which is largely funded by timber harvests and management activities.
The final environmental impact statement for the plan and instructions for public comment are available online at: