For many years, it has been pretty much common knowledge, supported by science, that as the amount of hunting season open roads increases, there is more need for cover for elk to hide. The Helena National forest plan (and others) have incorporated this relationship into standards for elk security. (Full disclosure – I had something to do with this on the Helena 30 years ago.) When the Helena National Forest developed its Divide travel plan, it found that it couldn’t meet its requirements for elk habitat because there were too many roads and not enough trees to provide security (trees in the area have been killed in large numbers by mountain pine beetles in recent years). So it amended its forest plan elk standard to eliminate the role of tree cover in determining elk security (distance from roads replaces road density as a factor).
The rationale provided in the Record of Decision emphasizes the fact that elk have been doing well despite the fact that the existing forest plan standards have not been met in many places.
I have taken into account the fact that Montana Fish,Wildlife and Parks data indicate that elk populations in the Divide landscape are either at or near population objectives of the 2005 Montana Elk Plan and that elk management challenges are only partially related to access management according to that Plan. I have also taken into account the fact that, despite several miles of road closures, only one herd unit comes into compliance with standard 4a in the Travel Plan Decision. Given this, I have concluded that the existing standard 4a is not an accurate indicator of elk security and is insensitive to changing road densities. The methodology utilized for the new standard (based on the percentage of an elk herd unit occupied by elk security areas and/or intermittent refuge areas) indicates that overall elk security in the Divide landscape is adequate. This measure of security is sensitive to changes in open road configuration and will provide a way to determine where proposed management actions are effective or where management needs to improve to ensure adequate big game security. I believe the new standard will provide a more realistic means of guiding travel management and other future management activities in the Divide Travel Planning Area.
In essence, the Forest is using anecdotal evidence in place of long-established science (which the Forest now asserts is not relevant to this kind of forest). Has the science just not caught up with reality, or is it possible that the high elk numbers are a result of unknown factors that, when they change, will render excessive road densities fatal to meeting elk harvest goals? When the plan is revised under the 2012 planning rule (revision is ongoing), it will have to meet the requirement for using best available scientific information for its elk habitat management decisions. (The amendment is using the 1982 planning process, but scientific integrity is still required.)
A court has been asked to weigh in on the amendment.
Interestingly, the lawsuit is by participants in a collaborative process.