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Court: Forest Service illegally allowed helicopter in wilderness for wolf collaring

A gray wolf in Idaho is photographed during winter survey. (Idaho Department of Fish and Game)
A gray wolf in Idaho is photographed during winter survey. (Idaho Department of Fish and Game)

UPDATED 4:55 p.m. with details from the Associated Press.

WILDERNESS -- A federal judge has ruled that helicopter landings in Idaho wilderness to capture and collar wolves were illegal and that research data acquired from effort must be destroyed.

According to a media release by Earthjustice, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill today ruled that the U.S. Forest Service illegally authorized the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to conduct about 120 helicopter landings to place radio collars on elk in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last winter in an operation during which IDFG also unlawfully collared four wolves.

The group says the court ruled that the Forest Service and IDFG are prohibited from using any data obtained from the illegally installed elk and wolf collars in future project proposals, IDFG must destroy the data received from the illegal collars, and the Forest Service must delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the wilderness for 90 days to allow time for
legal challenges.

Here's more from the release:

“Today’s decision vindicates the basic principle that a wilderness is supposed to be a wild area
where, as Congress said, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,’ not a
helicopter landing zone,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill concludes that the Forest Service
violated the Wilderness Act and conducted insufficient environmental review in allowing IDFG
to land helicopters in the River of No Return in January 2016 to capture and place radio
telemetry collars on wild elk. IDFG also captured and radio-collared four wolves during these
operations—an unauthorized action that was not permitted by the Forest Service, but that
threatened to advance IDFG’s plans to undertake wolf-killing in the wilderness by
providing locational information on the collared wolves. The federal Wilderness Act prohibits
the use of motorized vehicles including helicopters and requires preservation of natural
conditions in wilderness areas.

The judge found that these circumstances present “the rare or extreme case” where an injunction
requiring destruction of the illegally obtained radio-collar data is required, stating: “The IDFG
has collected data in violation of federal law and intends to use that data to seek approvals in the
future for more helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area. … The only remedy that will
directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data.”

IDFG’s existing elk and predator management plans call for reducing the wolf population by 60 percent in the heart of the River of No Return to boost elk herds that have been dwindling because of habitat, wolves and other factors. The elk are economically important to the region's outfitters.

Earthjustice represented Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds
Project in challenging the Forest Service’s decision.

UPDATE:  Here's the report on the court decision from the Associated Press:

Judge orders Idaho to destroy elk and wolf wilderness data
BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Idaho must destroy all information collected from tracking collars placed on elk and wolves obtained illegally by landing a helicopter in a central Idaho wilderness area, a federal judge ordered Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in the 24-page ruling said it’s such an extreme case that “the only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data.”

Winmill said the U.S. Forest Service in January 2016 broke environmental laws when it authorized Idaho Fish and Game to put collars on elk by making helicopter landings in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where engines are prohibited.

The state agency placed the collars on about 60 elk to gather information it said was needed to better understand what was causing reductions in the elk population in the wilderness.

But state workers also put collars on four wolves in an action the Forest Service didn’t authorize. The state agency blamed miscommunication with a helicopter crew.

“We are disappointed in this decision and are taking time to review our options,” Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler said in a prepared statement sent to The Associated Press. “Our priority is to continue to monitor and manage the Middle Fork Salmon River elk herds, which are so important to our state.”

Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness Watch sued the Forest Service in January 2016 when it learned of the helicopter flights.

While the lawsuit dealt with the collaring of elk and wolves, Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said the much bigger battle involved the River of No Return Wilderness itself.

“What’s at stake here is the sanctity of the concept of wilderness,” Preso said. “Make no mistake, this was Idaho’s effort to collect data to justify a larger program to manipulate elk and wolf populations in an artificial manner in one of the nation’s premier wilderness areas.”

The 3,700-square-mile mountainous and inaccessible River of No Return is generally considered a sanctuary from which young wolves disperse in search of new territory. Idaho officials have previously targeted that population by sending in a state-hired hunter in 2014 that killed nine wolves. State officials have been concerned wolves are having a detrimental effect on elk populations.

But environmental groups contend wilderness areas are specifically set aside to allow for natural prey-predator dynamics free of human interference.

“If wolves can’t live in a wilderness, than where on Earth can they possibly live naturally?” Preso said.

Winmill in his ruling noted that the Forest Service, in authorizing Fish and Game to land helicopters in the wilderness, ignored a prior court directive by allowing the flights to begin immediately instead of publicizing its decision and allowing it to be challenged.

Within three days of the authorization, Winmill noted, Fish and Game workers had collared 57 elk and four wolves.

The judge ordered any future wilderness entry and animal tracking authorizations to be delayed 90 days so groups will have time to file challenges.

Specifically, Winmill ruled the Forest Service in authorizing the flights in January 2016 violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Winmill also ruled that Fish and Game violated the terms of what the Forest Service authorized when it collared the four wolves.

In November, Fish and Game officials said three of the four wolves were still roaming the wilderness and that the fourth died of unknown causes near the middle of the wilderness.

The River of No Return was one of the areas to receive wolves when they were first reintroduced to the lower 48 U.S. states.

Officials released 35 in the area in 1995 and 1996 and the population in Idaho is now estimated at more than 700 individuals.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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