BOISE – A federal judge has cleared the way for state biologists to be dropped by helicopter into the vast Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness up to 20 times this winter to dart and collar wolves roaming the remote backcountry.
The ruling Friday by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill means the helicopter landings in the 2.3-million-acre wilderness preserve could begin as early as next week.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game sought permission last year to make up to 20 brief landings on snow or frozen terrain to affix radio collars on tranquilized wolves. The flyovers are part of the agency’s annual winter big game survey, and officials vow any landings would be unobtrusive, low impact and take just minutes.
Motorized vehicle use in federal wilderness areas is prohibited by law. But the U.S. Forest Service issued a special-use permit approving the flights in December, in part because the state promised the project could yield valuable new data about wolf behavior, denning sites and migratory patterns.
That decision irritated environmentalists, who filed a lawsuit seeking to block the landings, claiming they would violate the 1964 federal law that created wilderness areas nationwide. They also claim the federal government issued the permits without doing a thorough environmental analysis.
Although Winmill recognized the dilemma of allowing the backcountry landings, he ruled the limited intrusions are designed to help wolves, whose presence is a component to preserving the overall wilderness character of the central Idaho backcountry.
“The use of helicopters for any other purpose would be extremely difficult to justify under the Wilderness Act,” Winmill wrote in his 12-page ruling.
But he also warned the Forest Service to proceed with caution when reviewing future requests for landing choppers in the federal preserve.
“Given that this project is allowed to proceed, the next project will be extraordinarily difficult to justify,” the judge wrote.
Environmentalists from seven organizations disagree and contend even limited landings set a bad precedent. In legal briefs, lawyers pointed out how the Forest Service rejected a similar request in 2006 because more exhaustive analysis was needed.
“These special areas must be managed to protect the wild character, which is why Congress declared these lands forever wilderness, and the judge found this proposal at the edge of the rare exceptions to allow intrusions,” said Craig Gehrke, regional director for the Wilderness Society.
Depending on weather and helicopter availability, state biologists could begin making flights over the wilderness any time over the next six weeks.