On Feb. 6, Judge Molloy in the Montana District Court upheld the Custer National Forest’s use of the categorical exclusion applicable to projects not exceeding 250 acres for the Whitetail Salvage Project. In Native Ecosystems Council v. Weldon he found that even though it was the third project in the area affected by the 2012 Ash Creek Fire, the record showed that it was not reasonably foreseeable when the 2013 and 2015 projects were planned, and so the agency had not illegally “segmented” the projects to keep the acreages below the threshold for using the CE.
The court also found that effects on black-backed woodpeckers would be minimal because “the combined area of the Whitetail, Phoenix, and roadside hazard projects affect less than 2% of the highly suitable black-backed woodpecker habitat within the 90-kilometer cumulative effects area,” and “Abundant nesting and foraging habitat for black-backed woodpeckers will remain in the project area and cumulative effects area.” This level of effects did not require an EA. Plaintiffs had based much of their case on declarations they submitted by Chad Hanson. However, the court refused to consider the declarations because documents that “challenge the underlying science and data used by the agency” can’t be submitted outside of the administrative record (meaning they should have been submitted to the agency prior to the project decision). The judge found compliance with the 2012 Planning Rule requirement for using the best available scientific information for the woodpeckers (which is odd because the Planning Rule is not supposed to apply to projects).
The court also found that the project is consistent with the forest plan. The project is in a wildlife management area, but the plan had selected mule deer for emphasis in this area, and it was proper under the forest plan for the Forest Service to balance the needs of black-backed woodpeckers and other species in determining to conduct the salvage harvest.