The Caribou-Targhee National Forest just approved the Rowley Canyon Wildlife Enhancement Project that would cut and burn 1,666 acres of sagebrush, juniper, maple, and mountain mahogany trees with mechanized, track-based, mastication equipment. But nothing about this project even marginally enhances habitat for wildlife. If the Forest Service accurately labeled the project, it would have been called the “Rowley Canyon Weed Enhancement Project” or the “Rowley Canyon Fleece the Taxpayer Project” or even the “Rowley Canyon Wildlife Destruction Project.”
That’s why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wildlands Defense, and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Pocatello this week challenging the project, which is located about 14 miles north of Malad in the Elkhorn Inventoried Roadless Area on the east side of the Elkhorn Mountain Range just north of Summit Canyon and west of the I-15 corridor.
This senseless project will spend taxpayers’ money destroying important big game habitat and good sagebrush nesting habitat for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, as well as juniper, maple, and mountain mahogany habitat for native raptors and many kinds of migratory songbirds.
Being an Inventoried Roadless Area, this area has excellent wilderness potential and would be designated as Wilderness under the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) currently pending in Congress. The measure, S. 827, already has 13 Senate co-sponsors, including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, and 40 Representatives co-sponsoring it as H.R. 1321 in the House. NREPA recognizes and would protect the Elkhorn Inventoried Roadless Area as an important wildlife corridor.
Roadless areas are legally supposed to be managed with no intervention. They are supposed to be managed by Nature, which manages for free. This is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money and is actually nothing more than a make-work jobs program for Forest Service bureaucrats. But the impacts are very real.
Native junipers are very important for big game winter range. They provide hiding cover, thermal cover, and forage. They also reduce snow depth by creating tree wells in the snow. What the Forest Service is really doing is trying to increase grazing for cows — but even that is a misrepresentation because what the project will actually increase is invasive cheatgrass.
Bringing mechanized equipment in to log and burn in this roadless area will inevitably introduce cheatgrass as similar projects have done across the West. Cheatgrass is a very aggressive weed that has proven almost impossible to eradicate, is inedible for wildlife or cattle after it dries out in early spring, and has seeds that are so hard and sharp they can penetrate the stomach and intestines of animals that try to ingest them. The seeds can also blind the eyes of nesting birds that use sagebrush habitat and replaces the forbs that sage grouse depend on to feed their chicks.
Additionally, burning large tracts of sagebrush, juniper, maple, and mountain mahogany habitat vastly increases wildfire risk, lengthening the fire season by two months in the spring and two months in the fall because once cheatgrass dries out it becomes highly flammable, creating extreme wildfire hazards annually. By comparison, peer-reviewed studies found undisturbed sagebrush, juniper, maple, and mountain mahogany habitat only burns every several hundred years in the Intermountain West.
Instead of enhancing wildlife habitat, the Forest Service will destroy it. Big game will be driven out of public lands onto private lands, resulting in fewer big game hunting opportunities for hunters, game damage to private lands, and impacting the ability of Idaho’s wildlife managers to meet their big game population objectives. Furthermore, the concentration of elk on private lands could also result in the transmission of brucellosis to cattle, which may well destroy the ranchers’ livelihood.
The Forest Service should have done an environmental analysis and given the public an opportunity to comment and ask hard questions like, “what is really getting enhanced, wildlife or bureaucrats’ wallets?” Instead, the Forest Service decided to “categorically exclude” the project from an environmental analysis and public review, comment, and objection. As advocates for the preservation of native ecosystems on public lands and the public’s right to have a say in the management of those lands, we were left with no option except to exercise our First Amendment rights and take the government to court — which is just what we’re doing.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.