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.

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 signs first wilderness legislation since 2009

Image

Image courtesy Wikimedia.

President Barack Obama  has signed a bill designating land for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System, heralding the first designation of new wilderness since 2009.

Obama approved legislation that protects about 32,500 acres in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The action came Mar. 13.

For more details about the new wilderness designation, see this post.

House to take up bill to designate first wilderness in 5 years

The Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives will decide Monday whether to designate land along Lake Michigan as wilderness.

If the chamber approves H.R. 163, the nation would be on track for the first addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System since January 2011 and the first decision by Congress to expand NWPS since March 2009.

The bill covers 32,557 acres, nearly half of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Running for more than 60 miles along Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was chosen in one recent survey as the “most beautiful place in America.”

The NWPS contains 757 segments totaling more than 109 million acres. More than half of them overlay National Park Service lands.

Elkhorn Ridge Wilderness, located in northern California, was the last addition to NWPS. That wilderness area had been designated in 2006.

Congress last approved a bill creating new wilderness areas more than five years ago. The Omnibus Public  Land Management Act of 2009 added more than 2 million aces to NWPS. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 30, 2009.

The Senate has already approved legislation to protect land within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which means that H.R. 163 will head to Obama’s desk if the House agrees to it.

Its prospects appear to be good, as Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., is the lead sponsor.

This image shows Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in winter. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.
This image shows Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in winter. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

112th Congress might be first since 1966 to shun wilderness bills

The 112th Congress could become the first since 1966 to designate no acres anywhere in the United States for protection under the Wilderness Act.

There are currently 27 pending bills that would designate wilderness in 13 states, including five measures that would protect public land in California as wilderness, four that would designate additional wilderness in Colorado, four that would protect additional wilderness in New Mexico, and three that would add more acres in Oregon to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

“Some of the bills that are being held up are wilderness-only bills,” David Moulton, the senior director for legislative affairs at the Wilderness Society, said. “Most of them are bills that combine wilderness with the protection of other uses.”

Moulton explained that bills designating new wilderness are bottled up in the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Right now, the sitting chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, is so ideologically opposed to adding any wilderness to the preservation system that he refuses to allow bills through his committee,” Moulton said. “So bills that have been proposed to protect wild areas in states represented by Republicans, where there’s broad support and [the bill is] introduced by a Republican, are going to the House Natural Resources Committee and dying there.”

Hastings, 71, issued a statement in Nov. 2011 that indicated skepticism about additional wilderness legislation, arguing that enough has already been set aside.

“The federal government already owns more lands than it can afford to properly manage,” Hastings said. “We must make thoughtful and careful land-use decisions that reflect our country’s current economic situation, keep our lands healthy, and exemplify the importance of ensuring public access to public lands for multi-use purposes.”

The prospects for wilderness designations by means of a large bill that wraps many smaller proposals into one probably aren’t any greater than they are for the individual wilderness bills, at least if Hastings’ views carry the day in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

In Jan. 2011 Hastings told the Seattle Times that the House Republican majority would not pass so-called omnibus land conservation bills.

Even if there were a reasonable chance for an omnibus bill to move through the House of Representatives before adjournment near the end of December, the Senate may find it difficult to find the time to take up such expansive legislation.

The chamber, like the House of Representatives, is intensely engaged in efforts to resolve the federal government’s fiscal crisis.

“All I can say is that the Senate is an infinitely flexible place, so anything can happen,” Bill Wicker, a spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said. “But, at the same time, lame duck is a very challenging environment for all legislation.”

Wicker was using the phrase commonly applied to the period in which the members of the Senate and House of Representatives meet that occurs between an election and the start of the next Congress.

The outlook is not uniformly bad for public lands legislation. A measure that would re-designate Pinnacles National Monument in California as a national park passed the House unanimously.

The House version of the bill does not designate any new wilderness. Instead, it would re-name the existing Pinnacles wilderness to honor a pioneer family from the area.

“Since all the land is already under the control of the National Park Service, it doesn’t add any costs,” Adam Russell, a spokesperson for the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said.

A companion bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that remains pending in the Senate would add an additional 3,000 acres of wilderness within the new national park.


Photo of Pinnacles National Monument courtesy Wikimedia.

Note: A version of this story also appears at Examiner.com.

Salazar orders trigger of wilderness protection at Point Reyes National Seashore

A scenic estuary within California’s Point Reyes National Seashore that is thought to be the site of 16th century explorer Francis Drake’s landing in North America, and the locus for a long controversy over commercial oyster harvesting operations within the preserve, is set to become part of a designated wilderness area.

Interior secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday that he has directed the National Park Service to decline  a renewal of Drakes Bay Oyster Company‘s long-term operating lease. The company, which has been harvesting oysters since 1972, will no longer be authorized to do so.

The decision triggers 1976 legislation that designates Drakes Estero as protected wilderness and ends commercial activities on about 1,000 acres of federal land and waters.

I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape,” Salazar said.

Drakes Estero is known for its large seal population, as well as its status as California’s most plentiful source of oysters. Environmentalists and supporters of the oyster farm have engaged in a long-running battle about the commercial harvesting of that resource within the preserve.

In 2009 Congress enacted legislation granting Salazar discretion to decide whether to renew permission to operate there for another ten years or to terminate the existing authorization.

The oyster harvesting operation began in 1938, according to a recent NPS environmental impact statement that examined the potential consequences of allowing it to continue. In 1972, ten years after Point Reyes National Seashore was established, NPS entered into a forty-year lease with Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s corporate predecessor. That lease, called a “reservation of use and occupancy,” expires today along with a required permit.

Salazar’s memorandum to NPS director Jon Jarvis noted that continued commercial use of resources within the national seashore violates agency policy and would be inconsistent with Congress’ decision to restore wilderness qualities to Drakes Estero. 

Drakes Bay Oyster Company will have 90 days in which to remove its property from the preserve. The government will provide employees with job re-training and relocation assistance.

Drakes Estero Wilderness is the only marine wilderness on the nation’s west coast outside of Alaska. The designation of the area as part of the federal wilderness preservation system applies to about 8 square miles of the 31 square mile-size watershed.