Law Street Media

Family Ranch Files Complaint Against US Forest Service Claiming Harm to Grizzly Bears

Bulldozers clearing land in a forest.

Land being levelled and cleared by yellow earth moving digger

Castle Creek Ranch L.P. and its shareholders filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service,  Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, and District Ranger Ken Coffin on Wednesday in the District of Montana claiming a project near the family ranch is breaching federal laws. The complaint cited provisions in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The disputed project is a trail construction in the “Initial Creek/West Fork of the Stillwater River Area of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, Beartooth Ranger District.” It includes over three miles of trail and a footbridge over a river. Phase 1 of the project, which included a trail reconstruction, was finished last fall. Phase 2 had not started as of the time of the filing, but the plaintiffs were told it could start immediately.

The complaint claimed the project has potential impacts on the grizzly bear population, which is reportedly threatened. When the bears emerge from hibernation in the spring and food is scarce, the trail would allegedly lead them to ranches, including Castle Creek, in lower elevations in the season, when the ranches are raising calves and lambs. They argued that the defendants violated the ESA when they did not consider the trail’s potential impact on grizzly conflicts with ranches.

The plaintiffs also claimed the defendants did not consider the impacts of increased use of the area by motor traffic and other recreational use. The defendants reportedly violated the National Forest Management Act and its trail standards and the National Environmental Policy Act, citing improper project segmentation, scoping, and consideration of the cumulative impacts of the project.

In 2019, after the plaintiffs inquired about the project, a forest supervisor responded that “(c)urrent access is via the Initial Creek Road, a steep, rocky, narrow, backcountry road and while people do haul trailers, it is difficult and often unsafe to do so, especially during the hunting season when snow and icy conditions prevail. The new trail ties into the West Fork Stillwater River trailhead and would minimize these user safety concerns.”

Castle Creek Ranch, along with the other plaintiffs who are shareholders in the family ranch, Paul and Cathy Donohoe, Torian Donohoe, Kyle and Anna Donohoe, and David and Kayce Arthun, said the project would “significantly impact and disrupt the natural balance and status quo of the area.” They claimed the project has already caused harm, but the remaining portion would “irreparably damage Plaintiffs’ interest.” The ranch has been home for the family for over 100 years and is adjacent to the proposed trails.

The plaintiffs claimed the project is meant “to serve a single constituency,” specifically backcountry horse users. They sent a notice to the forest service of their intent to sue. They are seeking a judgment on their behalf, injunctive relief stopping the project, and costs to pay for the legal fees.

The plaintiffs are represented by Crowley Fleck, PLP. 

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