May 11, 2015
Lauren McCain

Habitat at Stake in Forest Service Planning Efforts

You take a deep breath of the crisp, clean air and gaze out at the incredible sight before you: Trees and mountains as far as the eye can see. As you watch from the trailhead, you realize you’re being watched in turn. A flicker of movement catches your eye. A deer? As you look closer you realize it’s a much rarer sight: a mountain lion! You watch, awestruck, as it bounds gracefully down the hillside and then disappears into the trees.

Such close encounters with wildlife are rare and magical. And our 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and one national prairie are among the best places to experience them. These public lands cover 193 million acres in 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and we all have a say in how they are managed.

Right now, the Forest Service is in the early phases of rolling out new management plans—blueprints that are critical for balancing wildlife habitat protection with resource use on public lands, such as logging. If the phrase “forest planning” makes you snore … wake up! The stakes are high for the critters that call national forest lands home. This is the perfect chance to make sure that our national forests are managed not just for uses like timber and recreation, but as the vital wildlife habitat they are.

A small set of national forests were selected to be the first to try this new approach, and our Forests for Wildlife team is working to help them set a high bar for wildlife habitat conservation:

Montana – Flathead National Forest

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, the Flathead National Forest is 2.4 million acres of rugged and beautiful forest habitat, dotted through with lakes, rivers and streams. It’s home to hundreds of different species, including Canada lynx, moose, grizzly bear, mountain goat, bull trout, and even the elusive wolverine.

The Flathead released a draft management plan in March. Our team has combed through it and will be heavily involved in making recommendations to the Forest Service. One thing we especially want to focus on here is making sure that the forest protects habitat for grizzly bears. These bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. While they are starting to recover in parts of the region, they still desperately need healthy, connected habitat.

(story continues below)

Grizzly bear, © Bill Keeting

Wide-ranging grizzly bears don’t understand boundaries, and so the Forest Service must collaborate with other federal, state, local, and private entities to ensure the bears are protected across large landscapes, including national forests.


Alaska – Chugach National Forest

This national forest covers millions of acres where the land meets the sea – which means it holds an incredible variety of wildlife, from species that make their home deep in the forest, to those that live on the rocky coasts, to those that swim the waters offshore.

As a forest dominated by massive glaciers, ice-covered peaks, and thousands of miles of coastline, the Chugach is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate. Habitat for grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, five salmon species, shorebirds, humpback whales, sea otters, and sea lions are all at stake in the forest planning process. We’re working to make sure that the forest’s new plan prepares for the impact climate change will have on this region’s wildlife.

(story continues below)

Black oystercatcher, © Richard P. Reading

Black oystercatchers are among the many shorebirds that migrate north to summer habitat along Alaska’s shores. The Chugach National Forest provides late spring and summer nesting habitat.


California – Sierra, Sequoia, and Inyo National Forests

The Sierra Nevada region is a global biodiversity hotspot, and home to a wide variety of wildlife like ringtails and fishers. It also holds species found nowhere else on Earth, such as Yosemite toads and mountain yellow-legged frogs—both protected under the Endangered Species Act. But this hotspot also suffers habitat degradation from logging, livestock grazing in sensitive mountain meadows, and other threats. The forest’s new plan needs to manage those threats more carefully, or entire species could be lost.

(story continues below)

Mountain yellow-legged frog, © Rick Kuyper/USFWS

The mountain yellow-legged frog is protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The frog inhabits the Sierra and Sequoia national forests in California.


Colorado – Rio Grande National Forest

The Rio Grande begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico high in the mountains of this national forest. With elevations from 7,600 to 14,300 feet above sea level, the Rio Grande National Forest hosts a variety of ecosystems that support boreal toads, bobcats, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, several rare plants, and habitat for federally protected Uncompahgre fritillary butterflies, Mexican spotted owls, and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

One species that we’re focusing on here is the Canada lynx. It was once extinct in Colorado, but has returned thanks to a reintroduction program that occurred, in part, on the Rio Grande National Forest beginning in 1999. As this forest creates its new plan, part of my work will be to advocate for limits on logging in lynx habitat. These cats depend on the dense forest habitats where they can find their favorite prey: snowshoe hares.

(story continues below)

Canada lynx, © Barbara Woodmansee

Protected under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, the Canada lynx can be found on national forests in the northeast, Northern and Southern Rockies, Oregon and Washington, and Alaska.


New Mexico – Carson and Santa Fe National Forests

We’re working with a coalition of conservation-minded partners to protect species in these forests that exist at the southern end of the Southern Rockies. We are promoting coordination between these forests and the nearby Rio Grande and other public lands to maximize habitat connectivity in the Southern Rockies ecoregion. We will work with both New Mexico forests to develop a plan that helps recover federally protected wildlife such as the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the Jemez mountain salamander, which finds 90 percent of its habitat on the Santa Fe National Forest.

Although complex, forest planning is a critical opportunity to encourage wildlife conservation on our public lands. Defenders will continue to press for the highest level of habitat protection for lynx, grizzlies, eagles, mountain lions, frogs, toads, and so many other wild animals that live on our forests, grasslands, and prairie.

Don’t forget – these are your national forests too! There will be many opportunities to get involved as the plans move forward, so stay tuned. We’ll let you know when and how you can tell the Forest Service that you want new plans that protect wildlife.


Lauren McCain

Lauren McCain

Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst (CO)
Lauren McCain works to defend, strengthen and expand federal law, policy and management that conserve wildlife and habitat on federal lands, with a special focus on national forests and grasslands.

Follow Defenders of Wildlife