By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday approved a deal between conservationists and Montana officials to restrict road-building and logging in roughly 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) of state forest lands that make up core habitat for federally protected grizzlies.
The agreement resolves a lawsuit brought by conservationists after the state had sought to open 37,000 acres (14,974 hectares), mostly in the Stillwater State Forest, to timber harvesting despite what environmentalists said would be the destruction of prime grizzly bear territory.
The deal restricting road-building and logging in the Stillwater and Coal Creek state forests west of Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana is designed to benefit the so-called Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzlies, which is one of just five groups of grizzlies in the lower 48 states.
Montana will ban motorized access during certain times outside of winter when grizzlies are using that landscape, prohibit permanent road construction, reclaim any temporary roads and shorten the duration of logging projects, according to court documents.
U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy in a decision last year found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing a permit to Montana for the project opening up the expanse to the timber industry.
Montana appealed the judge's ruling and conservation groups later appealed separate parts of the decision, leading to a stalemate that set the stage for both sides to hammer out a settlement.
Molloy approved the agreement on Friday, said attorney Tim Preso of the firm Earthjustice, which represented the conservation groups.
Grizzly bears were classified in 1975 as threatened in the Lower 48 states after they neared extinction from hunting, trapping and poisoning.
Federal protections make it broadly illegally to injure or kill the large, hump-shouldered bruins or destroy their designated habitat without a special permit.
The settlement comes after a federal-state panel managing grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, mostly in Wyoming, said a separate population of about 700 bears has recovered and recommended they be stripped of federal protections.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a decision on delisting soon.
Preso said the deal struck between conservationists and Montana will protect lands for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzlies even if U.S. wildlife managers remove that population from the endangered species list.
Montana officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Victoria Cavaliere)