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Lawsuit seeks to stop juniper-removal project in Idaho

Environmental groups have sued the U.S. Forest Service, claiming a plan to improve wildlife habitat in eastern Idaho would remove hundreds of trees and shrubs while taking an illegal shortcut around environmental laws.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and two other groups filed the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Pocatello to halt the Rowley Canyon Wildlife Enhancement Project in Bannock County.

The Forest Service used a categorical exclusion that allowed the decision to be made without disclosing key details of what’s planned, said Mike Garrity with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

In addition, the agency didn’t disclose that nearly all the work is taking place inside a designated roadless area intended to preserve natural landscapes, he said.

“It’s really taking away the public having a say in the management of public lands,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about the plan .

The proposed project is relatively small — some 1,700 acres (690 hectares) — but the environmental groups say using categorical exclusions on multiple projects could increase the area that is impacted.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Garrity said.

Last month, the Forest Service approved the project that would remove more than half of the juniper trees on about 1,300 acres (525 hectares) and remove shrubs on another 400 acres (160 hectares).

The agency said the categorical exclusion from certain environmental review requirements applies because it determined the work wouldn’t have any significant impacts.

Federal officials say the work will improve habitat for deer, elk and grouse by making the landscape more resilient and reversing an increase in cheatgrass, an invasive plant that relies on fire to spread to new areas while killing native plants, including sagebrush.

“Managing the density of juniper areas, restoring understories of the mountain brush and mahogany stands, and promoting resiliency will help regain fundamental structure, processes, and function,” the agency said.

Much of the work would take place in the fall when fire danger is lower.

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