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U.S. Border security might prompt the reopening of a road bisecting important grizzly bear habitat north of Priest Lake.
The Bog Creek Road, which runs east to west through the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho, was closed in the late 1980s in an effort to protect endangered grizzly bears which roam the rugged, wild country between Upper Priest Lake and the Canadian border.
However, starting in 2013 the U.S. Border Patrol asked the U.S. Forest Service to reopen 5.6 miles of the road, citing “legitimate threats to border security.” A decision is expected in late spring.
Conservation and environmental groups claim reopening the road will damage key habitat for grizzlies, Canada lynx, bull trout and caribou.
“That area is probably richer in wildlife diversity than anywhere else in the panhandle,” said Brad Smith, the North Idaho director for the Idaho Conservation League.
Humans cause between 77 and 90 percent of all grizzly bear mortalities in North America, according to the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project, a group of scientists working to restore grizzlies. The majority of those deaths occur near a road.
On Friday, the Forest Service published the final Environmental Impact Statement on the Bog Creek Road project. A draft statement was published in June and the public had a chance to comment then. People who commented on the draft have 45 days to file a formal objection.
The Border Patrol operates a station at Metaline Falls. That station is responsible for patrolling east of Bog Creek Road. As it stands now, agents have to drive about three hours if they need to go from the Metaline station eastward.
No particular incidents promoted the request for the road to be opened, said Bill Kingsford, a Border Patrol spokesman.
“It’s just the overall usefulness of it,” he said. “For us, it’s just the response time.”
The road would not be maintained during the winter.
“We’re not going to be up on that thing constantly going back and forth,” Kingsford said.
However, Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said if the road is reopened, there will be no limit on how many trips the Border Patrol can take on it.
The road would not be open to the public.
Normally, roads in recovery areas may only be traveled a certain number of times per year. When the Bog Creek Road was last open in the 1980s, it was limited to 57 trips per year.
“Grizzly bears are extremely sensitive to roads,” Santarsiere said. “It’s really going to impact them negatively and they are struggling already.”
Shoshana Cooper, a spokeswoman for Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said because there is no limit proposed for the number of trips on the Bog Creek Road, the agency would close about 26 miles of roads elsewhere on the forest to aid grizzly bear recovery. Closing the roads would allow the Forest Service to meet requirements for protecting core habitat for grizzlies.
The plan also would allow unlimited motorized trips on the 7.4-mile Blue Joe Creek Road that starts at the end of Bog Creek Road. Currently that road is limited to 57 vehicle trips per year.
“It’s an access thing because they need to be able to get up there,” she said.
Smith questions the legitimacy of the access argument and wonders if rebuilding the road won’t just make it easier for people to cross illegally into the United States.
“The vegetation in that part of the world is super thick,” he said. “It seems to me, and I’m no national security expert, that creating a road would actually make it easier for people to … cross the border.”
In 2013, Smith walked the road in question. It was overgrown with alders and other vegetation. Smith said he’s asked to meet with Border Patrol twice to discuss the road, but they have declined.
In a detailed objection letter from 2016, two former biologists for the Forest Service wrote, “the interests of wildlife, wild areas and border security are best served by not opening the Bog Creek Road.”
They claimed that opening the road would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Work would include installing six new culverts and replacing six of the 67 corrugated metal pipe culverts along the roadway. Officials say a culvert failure at one point caused a washout and has made the road impassable. Trees and brush also would be cut back along the road, which is in Boundary County.
Santarsiere, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the construction work could be just as damaging as the increased traffic.
After the 45-day objection period ends, Cooper said the Forest Service will reach out to individuals and groups that filed objections and attempt to come to a resolution.
The Forest Service will then issue a final decision. Work likely would start in July.
At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will complete a biological opinion examining the projects’ impacts on endangered species. Depending on that review’s findings, the Forest Service and Border Patrol could alter the project.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity is considering a lawsuit.
“When there is a final decision on the project, then it’s ripe for litigation, and we will consider potentially challenging the project in court,” Santarsiere said.
The Kalispel Tribe supports the project, said Ray Entz, the director of wildlife and terrestrial resources.
“We were supportive as long as they could keep their vehicle counts to a minimum,” he said.
Concerns about the road’s impact on grizzlies are valid, but conservation concerns have to be balanced with other interests, like border security, Entz said.
“I think it was decent compromise,” he said.
It’s estimated there are about 60 bears in the Cabinet and Yaak grizzly recovery area and about 30 bears in the United States’ portion of the Selkirk Range.