Helicopter Capture And Collaring Of Wolves In The Central Idaho Wilderness Is Prevented By WWP In Coalition With Other Conservation Groups

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Thanks to a Coalition of Conservation Groups Including The Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, Great Old Broads For Wilderness, Friends Of The Clearwater And The Intervention of WWP's Attorneys, Laird Lucas and Laurie Rule, The U.S. Forest Service Has Decided To Delay Indefinitely The Issuance Of A Special Use Permit to The Idaho Department of Fish and Game To Radio Collar Wolves In The Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness.

One of Western Watersheds obligations under our mission statement is to protect and restore not only western watersheds but also native wildlife.

In the past as part of that effort WWP has successfully fought the federal and state land management agencies as they have attempted to reduce or eliminate native wildlife to benefit public land ranchers. Recently the Idaho Department of Fish and Game petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to permit as many as 48 helicopter landings per year in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area to use tranquilizer darts to radio collar wolves in order to track and locate wolf packs within the Wilderness.

While clearly in violation of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980 that created the Frank Church Wilderness as the largest (2.2 million acres) designated wilderness in the U.S. outside of Alaska, the use of helicopters in the wilderness could lead to a more insidious effort to eradicate wolves even in Wilderness by aerial gunning after they are delisted as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

In this case public outcry and the threat of litigation from WWP's attorneys was enough to stop this probable violation of law on the part of the Forest Service. WWP thanks all the groups and our attorneys who made this victory possible.

Here is a front page article about the matter from today's edition of the Twin Falls, Idaho Times-News:
(Online at http://www.magicvalley.com/news_other/news_idaho/?storyid=/dynamic/stori... )

Idaho Denied Permission To Track Wolves Via Helicopter

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service has put off a decision on Idaho's request to land helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to attach radio collars on wolves, a delay that could prompt state wildlife managers to try to capture the animals in traps.

Idaho officials, who only last week took over management responsibilities of the packs reintroduced into the state in 1995 by the federal government, said the Forest Service deferral announced Tuesday likely triggers a lengthy environmental impact examination. And by the time the study is completed, it will be harder for state officials to know how many wolves are roaming the rugged 2.4 million acres of wilderness in the middle of the state.

"It really is an unfortunate turn of events," said Jim Caswell, administrator of the state's Office of Species Conservation. "It doesn't take away our ability to manage wolves, but it does make counting noses, determining den sites and keeping up with trends in the wilderness area more complicated."

Caswell said the state is studying other options for identifying wolves in the wilderness, and is considering the more labor-intensive approach of having biologists enter the wilderness area on foot and live-trap the wolves to attach collars.

"We can do this by trapping on the ground and the department may well do that," he said.

Idaho game managers had asked the Forest Service to waive the ban on motorized transportation inside federal wilderness areas so helicopters could be used to track and collar up to 16 gray wolves that are members of about six packs roaming the wilderness area.

State biologists have been flying on helicopters since December for aerial elk population estimates conducted every three to five years. They wanted to use the opportunity to shoot tranquilizer darts at wolves from the air. The helicopters would then briefly touch down near the stunned animals while a biologist attached a collar to the wolf, then administered a tranquilizer antidote.

"We felt the requested actions were minor enough in impact and were incidental to activities currently ongoing that it would not be a problem," said Steve Nadeau, Idaho Fish and Game's gray wolf coordinator. "The ability to do it incidentally won't happen again for another three to five years."

But more than 700 letters regarding the plan were sent to Intermountain Regional Forester Jack Troyer in Ogden, Utah, who oversees management of the federal wilderness area. In a statement he released Tuesday, Troyer said the number of public comments and the complexity of issues raised prompted him to wait until more a detailed analysis can be done.

"It is important to ensure the protection of wilderness while balancing the need for Idaho Fish and Game to manage populations of gray wolves," Troyer said.

Scott Phillips, a retired Forest Service employee in the central Idaho town of Hailey who wrote a letter of protest to Troyer, said the federal agency simply cannot allow an unwarranted motor activity inside the federal wilderness without doing a detailed environmental impact examination with more public comment.

"This is not a case of environmentalists raising some obscure point," said Phillips. "It's a fundamental point of law that the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1980 Central Idaho Wilderness Act prohibit motorized incursions into wilderness unless there is someone down there with two broken legs and they need their life saved by a helicopter ride."

Caswell said the state had argued that using helicopters for research in the wilderness would be a viable exclusion from the motorized prohibitions. But he believes the Forest Service was cowed by environmental groups that charged the helicopter collaring program would aid Idaho in eliminating - not managing - wolf packs.

"The Forest Service heard from folks who are skeptical of the motives of the state, who believe the only reason we want to do this is to find the wolves so we can shoot them," he said. "That's just baloney, it's not true."