By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Conservation groups on Friday hailed a court decision that blocks Montana from building roads and logging in nearly 37,000 acres of a state forest that serves as core habitat for protected grizzly bears.

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing a permit to Montana allowing it to open the Stillwater State Forest to timber harvests in areas that would damage grizzly territory.

Grizzly bears were classified in 1975 as threatened in the continental United States after nearing extinction from hunting, trapping and poisoning.

Just five populations of the hump-shouldered bruins are found in the Lower 48 states, including roughly 1,000 grizzlies along the northern Continental Divide in Montana, and an estimated 600 in and around Yellowstone National Park in the northern Rockies.

Federal protections make it broadly illegal to injure or kill grizzlies, or to harm them by destroying designated habitat without a special permit.

It is the population along the Continental Divide that is at stake in the legal case brought against logging proposals in the Stillwater State Forest, in northwestern Montana.

Tim Preso, attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said grizzlies have made a comeback in that region thanks chiefly to habitat protections that curb human activities such as logging.

“Now is not the time to pull back. We need to keep that population of grizzlies secure for the future,” he said.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation argued in the legal case that its plan to build roads and harvest trees would have minimal impact on grizzlies because it called for logging of small areas at different times rather than a full-scale clearing operation.

Profits from the proposed logging were to benefit public schools, said an agency administrator, Shawn Thomas.

The Obama administration has indicated it will seek to strip grizzlies of federal safeguards in areas where they are thriving, including the northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone.

In the same ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy declined to block plans for roads and logging in two other Montana forests tied to conservationists’ claims they would harm imperiled bull trout.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire said the judge’s decision on trout shows that plans hammered out by state and federal officials can benefit threatened species while allowing “a working conservation landscape” in Montana.


(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Mohammad Zargham)