Daines renews push for reversal of Cottonwood decision

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Montana’s Republican U.S. senator is leading a bipartisan effort to compel the Biden administration to reverse precedent set in a 2015 federal court decision over critical habitat for Canada lynx.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, on Tuesday sent a letter to the Biden administration asking for a full and permanent reversal to requirements established in the 2015 Cottonwood decision.

Daines is calling for the change about a month after the 117th Congress ended its session without passing a bill to reverse the court case’s precedent. The legislation passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in July.

Reversing the re-consultation requirements established in Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service has long stood among Daines’ top forest restoration priorities. Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Montana’s Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale have also supported a reversal.

Tester has also signed Daines’ letter to the Biden administration, and he’s been working on the issue for years, a spokesperson from his office confirmed Tuesday.

The senator “knows that healthy forests and wildlife habitats are critical to supporting thousands of good paying Montana jobs, which is why he’s working with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to cut red tape” by pushing for a permanent fix, the spokesperson said in an email.

“The Senator’s bipartisan effort will cut out time-consuming bureaucracy so that decisions can actually be made by folks on the ground in a way that defends our forests and wildlife habitat for generations to come,” they said.

Per the requirements, federal agencies have to re-consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over completed land management plans whenever a new species is listed as threatened, critical habitat is designated or associated “new information” is uncovered.

According to Daines’ letter, the Cottonwood ruling created “a new, never-ending procedural requirement for consultation” that has “opened the door for frequent litigation, delaying critical wildlife habitat and forestry projects and diverting federal resources away from important conservation works.”

Daines wants the Biden administration to strike down the requirements in the president’s budget for fiscal year 2024. The budget is traditionally introduced after the president delivers a State of the Union Address, which is scheduled for Feb. 7.

The 2018 omnibus bill partially reversed the consultation requirements for land use plans by establishing certain exemptions. But it was a temporary fix that’s set to expire in March, according to Daines’ office.

In a statement, the senator wrote that the bipartisan Cottonwood fix passed out of committee last year, and it “has the support of the last three Presidential administrations.” Numerous conservation and sportsmen’s organizations also back it.

“An immediate resolution to this decision is vital to allow land managers and wildlife biologists to follow the best available science to improve the health of our forests, reduce the risk of severe wildfires, advance wildlife habitat projects, and support good paying jobs,” Daines wrote.

John Meyer, attorney at Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, said the only reason Canada lynx are listed as threatened is because forest plans don’t adequately protect the felines.

“These cats are threatened because of death by 1,000 cuts, which is why we need strong forest plans in place to protect them,” Meyer said.

“Our national forests should not be managed by senators” and should instead be managed by scientists, he said.

At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing in October, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French testified that the 2018 omnibus bill opened up a five-year window for the agency to prepare for the ruling’s impacts on forest management work.

Once the partial reversal expires in March, the re-consultation requirements will be applied “beyond the Ninth Circuit to all forests across the United States,” according to Daines’ letter.

“Beginning in 2023… we’ve probably got around 100 plans that would have to go through consultation, based on the various triggers. That will take us years and millions of dollars,” French testified.

Meyer said the point of re-consultation is for the Fish and Wildlife Service to get together with the Forest Service to ensure that critical habitat isn’t modified anytime the agency wants to log an area or adopt a new forest plan.

He pointed out that Cottonwood’s court win did stop the Bozeman Municipal Watershed project — a logging project south of the city — from moving forward for eight years, because it overlapped with critical lynx habitat.

However, the work went ahead anyway after the Forest Service re-consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service, meaning the requirement ultimately didn’t stop anything.

“Sen. Daines is playing ‘Chicken Little,’ saying the sky is falling,” Meyer said.

Back in 2000, the Canada lynx was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate more than 1 million acres of land as critical habitat for the cat. However, no national forest land was included during that process.

Fast forward to 2009, and the service admitted that a high-ranking Interior Department official improperly interfered in the habitat designation process. It then designated 12 million acres of national forest as critical habitat, virtually overnight.

Cottonwood Environmental Law Center sued the Forest Service in 2012 in the hopes of ensuring that the newly-designated habitat would be adequately protected by the federal agency’s land management plans, Meyer said.

A federal district court, and later the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled in Cottonwood’s favor.