Traffic greatest concern

By JARED MILLER - Staff Writer

Increased usage, not paving, will have the biggest impact on wildlife and habitat in the North Fork area if a proposal to pave North Fork Road goes through, officials said at a meeting Tuesday.

Representatives from a dozen agencies met in Kalispell for the first step in a process to determine the best alternative for improving the road.

The officials provided input, in their respective fields, about possible effects of paving.

Wildlife concerns received the most attention, mainly due to the North Fork's host of endangered and threatened species.

Grizzly bears would likely be the animal species most susceptible to harm if the road is paved.

According to Rod Hickle of the U.S. Forest Service, the creation of the road itself would not put the bears at risk, but increased use because of improved road conditions could.

"The increased number of people is the biggest concern from the standpoint of grizzly bears," Hickle said.

Housing development along the North Fork would likely follow pavement of the road, officials agreed, though specifics concerning development potential is not certain.

"Growth is in some cases inevitable," said Brace Hayden, regional issues specialist for Glacier National Park. "The road will influence the rate of growth.

"A tremendous amount of public money is being spent now trying to keep bears and people separate," Hayden said.

In addition, many "problem" bears captured in other areas of northwest Montana have been relocated to the North Fork area. That could pose a problem for bears that become a nuisance in the North Fork.

"You can assume those bears wouldn't be translocated again," said Carol Jorgensen, a biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Endangered bull trout also received substantial comment at the meeting from fish biologists who gave mixed review to the paving proposal.

Biologist Tim Bodurtha of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is possible that pavement could help trout species by decreasing the amount of road dust in the river.

"I think paving will ultimately help native fish in the system, but we still need to look at effects to native fish in the short term (from construction)," Bodurtha said.

Construction work is a concern, but Charles Johnson, Flathead County road supervisor, said sediment released from the paving project should be minimal since the road only needs minor prep work before the final paved surface is laid.

"It's is ready for paving now," Johnson said. "Culverts are in place, and it's ready to go."

"Paving, in this case, would involve putting a hardened surface over what is already there," said Ron Burnett, design operations engineer with the U.S. Department of Transportation who moderated Tuesday's meeting.

While construction isn't expected to pose a threat to the bull trout, increased traffic into the North Fork area may, said Tom Weaver, fisheries biologist for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.

"These fish (bull trout) are huge," he said. "They spawn in shallow water. They are very visible. They have been poached for years."

Aside from the threat of poaching, increased access means increased pressure from fishing, officials said.

While paving the North Fork Road may cause some problems for fish in the river, it will likely improve water conditions in Flathead Lake by decreasing dust produced now by summertime traffic, said

fisheries Biologist Pat Van Emeren. Less dust would mean cleaner water draining into the Flathead Lake.

Other animal species that may be impacted by paving include gray wolves, lynx, wolverines and bald eagles, Hickle said. Deer and elk would likely fall victim to increased speeds on the road which runs through prime wintering range.

Tuesday's meeting was the beginning of a public scoping and information gathering process that should take between three and six weeks, Burnett said. Burnett promised that during that time, public meetings will be held to gather public input.

Officials from both Glacier National Park and the U.S. Forest Service said their agencies will not take an official position on the road improvement proposal.