By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

A lawsuit has been filed against the U.S. Forest Service to stop the agency from building more than 130 miles of off-highway vehicle trails in the Ochoco National Forest, alleging the project could hurt key elk habitat.

The Oregon Hunters Association, the state’s largest, pro-hunting organization made up of more than 10,000 members, filed the lawsuit in the Pendleton Division of the United States District Court on Aug. 31, arguing the decision to approve the trails is not supported by scientific wildlife research the Forest Service completed on the Starkey Experimental Forest in Northeast Oregon.

The lawsuit, filed by the hunters association’s attorney Scott Jerger, alleges the Forest Service’s decision to add the roads and trails violates the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The hunters association argues the addition of trails and roads would increase use, which Forest Service scientists have shown adversely affects elk habitat, according to a news release from the hunters association Research on the Starkey Experimental Forest found the animals avoid areas within 1.1 miles of roads or motorized trails.

The association also argues the project would displace elk, forcing the animals from public to private lands, which will result in more damage complaints and fewer elk for hunters on public land.

Before filing the lawsuit, the Oregon Hunters Association had participated in the Forest Service’s planning process, raising concerns about effects on the elk habitat.

Patrick Lair, a spokesman for the Ochoco National Forest, said Thursday the Forest Service will continue moving forward with planning the trail project.

Years of discussions have gone into finding the area the Forest Service has chosen for the added trails, Lair said. The goal is to give off-highway vehicles sustainable places to ride to prevent them from going off trail.

Currently, there are only a couple small trails in the Ochoco National Forest, each less than 20 miles, that are exclusive to off-highway vehicles.

In part because of that, many choose to ride in areas the Forest Service hasn’t designated, which can harm the forest, Lair said.

The area where the Forest Service plans to build more trails is supported by local off-highway vehicle groups, Lair said, which is in the Forest Service’s favor because it wants riders to use them. Based on the Forest Service’s research, adding the trails won’t have a significant impact on elk, he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,