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
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.