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Ninth Circuit rules against Forest Service plan for snowmobiles in southwestern Montana

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HELENA, Montana — A federal appeals court handed down on Monday a decision finding the U.S. Forest Service failed to thoroughly analyze or publicize the impact of snowmobiles on wildlife in Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

The 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service skirted multiple environmental and public-disclosure laws in its 2010 forest plan. It reversed a lower judge's July 2013 decision dismissing a lawsuit against the plan. After that case was appealed, Montana and Idaho snowmobile associations intervened as defendants.

"Unfortunately, this is kind of par for the course in this world — the world of recreational law," said Paul Turcke, attorney for the snowmobile groups. "It's not uncommon for courts to advise that use should have been done differently years later."

The circuit court sided largely with the three environmentalist groups that brought the complaint argued in Seattle in November 2013 — WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterroot and Montanans for Quiet Recreation.

Circuit Judge Richard Paez wrote that although the plan decreased snowmobile access to about 2 million acres of the forest's total 3.35 million acres, it did not necessarily curb the impacts of the increasingly popular sport.

The agency failed to meet management criteria under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and a 2005 rule update to President Richard Nixon's 1972 executive order aimed at minimizing effects of travel on natural resources, the court found.

The Forest Service provided "virtually no information about where the big game winter range is actually located, nor the concentration of game in each area," Paez wrote. He continued, "Without data on the location of the big game winter range, the public was severely limited in its ability to participate in the decision-making process."

The Forest Service offered no comment as the U.S. Department of Justice reviews the decision.

While it's possible the Forest Service will respond to the 9th Circuit's decision with a new analysis of traffic impacts and an updated Beaverhead-Deerlodge plan, Turcke said the judges were conspicuously silent on any question of remedy.

But WildEarth Program Director Bryan Bird said the opinion effectively mandates the agency to rewrite its forest plan. "We want a plan to give wildlife refuge in the modern world," Bird said.

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