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Four Montana groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service for a decision that they say abandons 10 wildlife standards those agencies have used for the past 30 years to protect grizzly bear, lynx, elk, moose and more animals in the region.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Missoula, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Western Watershed Project, the Sierra Club and Wildearth Guardians are suing the two federal agencies to stop a forest plan they say not only downplays but intentionally disregards any of the animals’ habitat in favor of logging projects.
The 10 standards were developed and designed to preserve big game habitat for animals in the Helena National Forest and connect different parts of land.
Some of those standards include:
Adequate cover and hiding in winter and summer for big game species.The minimum cover and size of cover for elk.A requirement that the Forest Service will follow the Montana Cooperative Elk-Logging Study Recommendations.A rule that says the Forest Service will map all summer, fall and winter ranges.The service will protect bighorn sheep and mountain goat range during “resource activities.”And that the service will maintain moose habitat to provide “adequate browse species.”
Cover is the amount of protection a species needs to survive or thrive, and mostly consists of trees forming a canopy. It gives cover for animals from predators or hunters, and is necessary for rearing the young of the species. It provides both living space and vegetation.
The lawsuit also raises concern about the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to protect the endangered Canada lynx because of the changes that would allow more logging and less cover, which it argues would impact wild hare populations that are necessary for the cats’ survival.
“The standards thrown out by the Forest Service in its revised plan are crucial to protecting wildlife, and to enabling threatened grizzly bear populations in northern Montana and Yellowstone to connect with each other and reach full recovery,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative with the Sierra Club in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rockies region. “Grizzly bears, Canada lynx, elk and many others will pay a steep price if this decision is allowed to stand.”
Hunters groups are also worried that more logging will remove cover essential for elk hunting and the area will be disturbed by motorized vehicles if the standards are removed.
Road density is also a key factor in disrupting grizzly bear habitat, including leading to more bear mortality.
The revised plan allows forest managers to perform “fuel treatments” which includes logging and more road building.
“We are extremely concerned with the Service’s decision to abandon all the wildlife standards that were in the previous plan and were based on peer-reviewed science,” said Gayle Joslin of the Helena Hunters and Anglers and retired wildlife biologist. “The intent is clearly to preempt the public’s ability to hold the Forest Service accountable for its actions.”
Both the U.S. Forest Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the story because of the pending lawsuit.
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The U.S. Senate voted along party lines Saturday night to advance to debate on Democrats’ sweeping energy, health and taxes bill, clearing a major hurdle to passage.
The 51-50 vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie, cleared the chamber to debate and vote on amendments to the measure and indicated that it had enough support from Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.
“We will show the American people that, yes, we are capable of passing a historic climate package, and rein in drug companies, and make our tax code fairer,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote. “We are able to make big promises and work hard at keeping them as well.
“This is one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching pieces of legislation that has come before the Congress in decades,” the New York Democrat added. “It will help just about every citizen in this country and make America a much better place.”
As expected, every Republican voted against the measure. Republicans in and out of the Senate have criticized the measure for spending too much during a recession while doing little to address consumer inflation, which they say is the foremost issue American face.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell focused his remarks on the measure’s provisions allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs, saying it would lead to a drastic reduction in research and development efforts in the private sector.
“Democrats’ policy would not bring about some paradise where we get all the amazing new innovations we would have gotten anyway, but at lower prices,” he said. “Their policy would bring about a world where many fewer new drugs and treatments get invented in the first place, as companies cut back on R&D.”
The White House said Saturday that President Joe Biden’s administration “strongly supports” the bill.
“This legislation would lower health care, prescription drug, and energy costs, invest in energy security, and make our tax code fairer—all while fighting inflation and reducing the deficit,” the statement of administration policy said.
The vote opened a rare weekend Senate session — while the chamber was scheduled to be on its August recess — that is expected to include up to 20 hours of debate and consideration of 40 to 50 amendments in a “vote-a-rama.”
Depending on how long debate and amendment votes take, a final vote is expected Sunday or Monday.
The bill, negotiated primarily by Schumer and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III with additional changes made at the behest of Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, would spend nearly $370 billion on clean energy programs, allow Medicare to negotiate some drug prices beginning in 2026 and change the tax code and bolster Internal Revenue Enforcement to bring in more than $400 billion in new revenue over 10 years.
A July 29 analysis by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania found the bill would have a negligible impact on inflation.
After negotiating with Sinema and presenting the bill to the Senate parliamentarian to ensure all the provisions qualified for consideration under budget reconciliation, Democrats released a longer 755-page updated bill minutes before voting to open debate Saturday.
The reconciliation process allows Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority, instead of the usual 60-vote threshold.
Among the late changes to the bill was an addition of $4 billion to address Western droughts.
Western Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Michael Bennet of Colorado announced they secured the funding for the Bureau of Reclamation to address droughts in Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
“The Western United States is experiencing an unprecedented drought, and it is essential that we have the resources we need to support our states’ efforts to combat climate change, conserve water resources, and protect the Colorado River Basin,” they said in a joint statement.
Democrats also added a provision to cap the price of insulin co-pays for Americans at $35 starting in 2024. The insulin language, though, may be challenged by Republicans on the floor.
Another provision, pushed by Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine, and included in the bill’s initial draft, would permanently extend the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides monthly payments and medical benefits to disabled coal miners who developed black lung disease while working in coal mines.
The reduced prescription drug costs and tax code changes more than offset the bill’s spending, reducing the deficit by about $100 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The extra IRS enforcement would bring the total deficit reduction to around $300 billion.
Those projections have not stopped Republicans from criticizing the bill as a “tax-and-spend” measure.
The deficit reduction would amount to less than 1% of the country’s gross domestic product over 10 years, Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican said Friday.
“This will be a total rounding error,” he said. “So that’s what they’re using to justify and that’s their strongest argument, it’s a pretty weak strong argument.”
Forcing tough votes
Most amendments to the Democrat-written bill are expected to come from Republicans, some with the express purpose of forcing Democrats into tough political positions ahead of November’s elections.
GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming said Republicans would propose amendments on immigration, crime, inflation and energy policy.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the amendment votes would be “like hell.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said that the chamber would return from its August recess to vote Friday on a Senate-passed bill.
The United States fully supported Israel's right to defend itself, the State Department said on Saturday, and it urged all sides to avoid further escalation as Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza while the militant Islamic Jihad group fired rockets into Israel.
At least 24 Palestinians, including six children, have been killed and 203 wounded during the two days of firing, according to the Gaza health ministry.
The State Department also said it was concerned by reports of civilian deaths and called for "a timely and thorough" probe into those casualties. It did not elaborate.
Palestinian militants fired over 400 rockets at Israel - most of them intercepted, setting off air raid sirens and sending people running to bomb shelters. There were no reports of serious casualties, the Israeli ambulance service said.
A State Department spokesperson told Reuters the United States was in touch with Israeli officials and others in the region to prevent further escalation.
An Egyptian intelligence delegation headed by Major General Ahmed Abdelkhaliq arrived in Israel on Saturday and would be travelling to Gaza for mediation talks, two Egyptian security sources said. They were hoping to secure a day's ceasefire in order to carry out the talks, the sources added.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio and Kim Coghill)