‘We Fought For Elk, And Won’–OHA On Judge’s Recommendation Against Ochoco OHV Expansion Plan

Unlike the other end of the wildlife spectrum, sportsmen conservationists don’t often go to court, but hunters are heralding a federal judge’s recent preliminary decision against a plan to build 137 miles of new offroad trails in a Central Oregon national forest.

THE OREGON HUNTERS ASSOCIATION AND OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE HAVE BEEN OPPOSED TO THE PROPOSED NEW OFF-HIGHWAY TRAILS THROUGH THE OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST BECAUSE OF IMPACTS TO ELK HABITAT. DARREN ASHLEY HARVESTED THIS BULL IN THE OCHOCO UNIT A COUPLE SEASONS AGO. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

“We fought for elk, and won,” said Jim Akenson, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, in a press release.

OHA was among several parties that filed a lawsuit to halt a U.S. Forest Service bid to put in the off-highway vehicle trails through critical habitat in the Ochoco National Forest east of Prineville.

They argued that the forest plan violated road density standards and didn’t adequately consider how it would affect calving and rutting elk, according to a press release.

US District Court Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan in Pendleton recommended that the Forest Service’s record of decision on the project be set aside.

A local TV report termed it “preliminary” as Sullivan’s ruling must be reviewed by another federal arbiter, Judge Marco Hernandez in Portland, with both sides able to submit more arguments. But according to an attorney quoted by the station, it is rare for magistrate’s decisions to be overturned.

No doubt that OHVs are a good way to get around the woods and haul out big game, but according to a Northwest big game biologist’s 2013 paper summarizing the impacts of roads and traffic on elk, the vehicles cause the most disturbance for the species, leading bulls, cows and calves to react “negatively” to them at distances of even two-thirds of a mile away.

“OHA did everything they could to participate in the Forest Service planning process and raise their concerns about impacts on elk security and habitat,” said OHA Legislative Director Paul Donheffner in a press release. “We filed this lawsuit as a last resort. This was a very good day for OHA, other conservation groups that value the Ochocos, and for elk. Prevailing against the federal government is no easy match. This is a great victory for OHA and our mission.”

The main lawsuit was filed by Central Oregon Land Watch, with OHA filing a companion case. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has also opposed the new trails. We covered the issue in our September 2013 issue.

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