Forest Service slaps Idaho wildlife agency for collaring wolves in wilderness area

The supervisor of an Idaho national forest has declared that the Gem State’s fish and wildlife agency violated a permit allowing use of a helicopter in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area by collaring wolves.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark entered an order of noncompliance on Wednesday.

“Helicopter landings in the Frank to collar wolves were not authorized, and constitute noncompliance with the terms and conditions of the permit,” Mark said.

Idaho’s Department of Fish & Game had been granted the permit on Jan. 6 so that the agency could collar elk in the Middle Fork section of the wilderness area. That operation was started on Jan. 7 and finished Jan. 9.

Environmental advocacy organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the permit as a violation of the Wilderness Act. They also sought an injunction that would prevent the helicopter flights. No hearing on that request has occurred.

Four wolves were collared in violation of the permit granted to IDFG. Mark’s order of noncompliance does not require those collars to be removed. Instead, IDFG must “provide information as to how and why the decision to collar the wolves was made,” “participate in an after-action review with the Forest Service” during which the two agencies will examine why the helicopter landings to collar wolves in the wilderness area occurred, and “develop a plan to assure that IDFG will not utilize helicopter landings in the wilderness for any purposes other than those for which the Forest Service specifically approves landings in any future permits that may be issued.”

IDFG notified the Forest Service of the violation. The state agency called the wolf collaring incident a “mistake.”

The environmental group plaintiffs in the litigation pending before U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill have amended their complaint to ask that the court bar IDFG from using collar data to track wolves.

“There is every reason to believe that these new wolf collars will be used by a state trapper to locate wolves for the purpose of killing them in pursuit of a program to manipulate wildlife populations that is fundamentally at odds with the concept of wilderness,” Tim Preso, an attorney at Earthjustice who represents the environmental advocacy organizations, said in a statement.

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Environmental groups challenge Forest Service permit authorizing helicopter use in wilderness

Gray Wolf - courtesy USFWS, photo by Gary Kramer
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.

The Obama administration is taking heat over a decision to allow the use of helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Attorneys representing a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boise, arguing that the plan violates the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It is the second time the agency has become enmeshed in controversy over the issue of helicopter use by the state of Idaho. The earlier go-round involved the state of Idaho’s effort to support the federal government’s re-introduction of gray wolves to the wilderness area. U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in a Feb. 2010 decision that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service could permit the state’s Fish and Game Department to carry out helicopter monitoring of the wolves, but also made clear that its permission indicated a rare exception to the Wilderness Act’s general prohibition of machinery in protected reserves.

This time, the Forest Service has granted a permit to the Idaho Department of Fish & Game so that it can tag elk within the wilderness area. A Jan. 6 notice by the Forest Service said that IDFG would be allowed to make as many as 120 helicopter landings inside the preserve.

The state agency wants to tag the elk as part of its obligation to facilitate hunting.

“Our goal is to manage those [elk] populations in a way that there will be a surplus for hunting and to reduce impacts and instances where, perhaps, predation by wolves, bears, or mountain lions may also be impacting that potential surplus,” Michael Keckler, a spokesperson for IDFG, explained.

IDFG has said that it wants to kill sixty percent of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness.

The Idaho fish and wildlife agency argued in a 2014 document that the number of elk in the 1.7 million-acre Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area declined by more than 40 percent between 2002 and 2011. “It’s been five years since we were in there and really been able to see what’s going on,” Keckler said. “We’re pretty sure those declines have continued.”

IDFG has indicated that it believes predation is a major cause of elk population declines in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “Based on population modeling, the MFZ elk population is expected to continue to decline at [three] to [seven percent] annually if predation rates are not reduced,” the agency said in its Predation Management Plan for the Middle Fork Elk Zone. The IDFG plan also specifically blamed wolves for a significant portion of the decline.

Opponents of the state fish and wildlife agency’s plan disagree that predators are the culprit for any decline in the number of elk inhabiting the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

“I think, historically, elk populations, they weren’t that high in these areas,” Ken Cole, a biologist with Western Watersheds Project, said. “It’s not what you would consider high quality elk habitat. It was more of a bighorn sheep-mule deer habitat. The reason that elk populations got so high in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s is because they eradicated the wolf population and the grizzly population. You would expect the population of elk to decline once the native predators were reestablished.”

The Wilderness Act, which was enacted into law in 1964, includes broad language indicating that helicopters are, for the most part, forbidden in wilderness areas. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act provides:

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Federal courts have interpreted the phrase “administration of the area” to authorize only those activities that advance a protected preserve’s “wilderness character.”

Winmill’s 2010 decision in Wolf Recovery Foundation v. U.S. Forest Service indicates that he may be skeptical of the Forest Service’s effort to extend helicopter use beyond monitoring of wolves to monitoring of wolf prey. “[H]elicopter use in a wilderness area is antithetical to a wilderness experience, and that the approval of the single project at issue [in that case] — based on unique facts — is unlikely to be repeated,” he wrote in her opinion.

A USDA Forest Service regional forester in Arizona reached a similar conclusion last year.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark authorized the IDFG plan without requiring USDA Forest Service personnel to complete an environmental impact statement. He wrote in a Jan. 6 Record of Decision that the agency’s authorization of helicopter landings is “very restrictive” and that the aircraft will be permitted to land only in a “mere fraction” of the Middle Fork Zone. Mark did not specify the exact amount of the wilderness area’s acreage that would be directly impacted by helicopter landings or by helicopter flights overhead.

“The map that we’ve seen shows it to be a fairly significant area,” Cole said. “I’d say probably 20 to 30 percent of it.”

The landings would occur on one or more of USDA Forest Service’s eight airstrips within the wilderness area.

According to an editorial column published by Mark in the Jan. 7 edition of the Idaho Statesman, IDFG plans to land helicopters in the Middle Fork Zone on five days between mid-January and March 31.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness encompasses more than 2.3 million acres and is the largest forested designated wilderness area in the country. During 2014 observers noted the presence of 119 wolf packs in Idaho. IDFG thinks the wolf population might be a little lower than that.

“Last year we documented 104 packs within the state,” Keckler said.

About eight of those packs are resident to the Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area.

Wolves in the northern Rockies were protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 until April 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a budget bill that included a rider that forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Canis lupus in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The plaintiffs in the Idaho case include Friends of the Clearwater, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Watch. They seek an injunction to prevent the helicopter landings from going forward.

Winmill has been assigned to hear the case for the Idaho federal court, Cole said.

Obama administration rejects petition to list gray wolf

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has turned away an attempt to secure Endangered Species Act protection for all gray wolves in the country.

In a Federal Register notice published July 1, the agency said that a petition to classify Canis lupus as a threatened species throughout the country did not provide enough scientific support to justify the move.

“We are disappointed in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to consider this middle-ground approach to wolf management,” Michael Markarian, a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. “A threatened listing is a reasonable compromise to this contentious issue, and it retains some federal protection for wolves, while providing more flexibility to the states in dealing with the occasional problem wolf.”

HSUS, along with 21 other animal welfare and environmental organizations, had asked FWS in January to designate the gray wolf as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition argued that hunting of gray wolves, especially in several western states, is likely to undermine recovery goals for the species.

Gray wolves are classified as endangered in much of the nation, but not in the states where most of their habitat actually exists. In Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington the species is not protected by the ESA.

BLM pulls back from Idaho hunting contest

The Bureau of Land Management reversed course Tuesday on its previous authorization of a contest to kill gray wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife on Idaho public lands.

Gray wolves were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act until a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in April 2011 compelled an end to their protection.

The agency revoked a five-year permit that had been granted on Nov. 13 to organizers of a “predator derby” to be held on BLM and Forest Service lands near Salmon.

Idaho Falls district manager Joe Kraayenbrink explained that elimination of entry fees for killing contest participants and confusion as to the nature or extent of prizes to be awarded were “factual uncertainties” that prevented BLM from deciding appropriate conditions for the permit.

“As IFW plans have more fully developed over time, our analyses did not fully appreciate and capture important aspects of how IFW envisions or ultimately intends the Derby to actually take place,” Kraayenbrink wrote in an announcement of the permit rescission.

Kraayenbrink referred to Idaho for Wildlife, the organizer of the predator hunt.

Environmental advocacy organizations had challenged the issuance of the permit in federal court. A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Boise on the same day BLM had issued the permit authorizing mass killing of wildlife alleged that BLM and its sister agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a study of environmental impacts resulting from the participation in the planned massacre of up to 500 hunters.

The extent of BLM’s NEPA compliance with regard to the hunt had been a Finding of No Significant Impact, which is a conclusion that an activity planned for the public lands will have no significant environmental consequence.

During last year’s version of the event, which was apparently the first wolf-killing contest in the United States in 40 years, participants killed 21 coyotes and no gray wolves.

Organizers had made available prizes to the hunters who killed the largest gray wolf and the most coyotes.

They also explicitly encouraged the participation of children and gave unique awards to hunters who were not adults.

The plaintiffs in the Nov. 13 lawsuit also suggested that both agencies violated their own regulations by allowing the event to proceed.

The killing contest, which is set for Jan. 2-4, 2015, is still authorized on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. USDA Forest Service did not require hunt organizers to obtain any permit at all.