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.

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