The U.S. Forest Service illegally authorized Idaho officials to land helicopters in a wilderness area last winter to place radio collars on elk in an operation during which the state also unlawfully collared wolves, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday ordered the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to destroy the data it has collected from the 57 elk and four wolves it collared in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
“This is the rare or extreme case where a mandatory injunction is required,” Winmill wrote. “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.”
Winmill also directed the Forest Service to delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the wilderness for 90 days to allow time for legal challenges.
Mechanical transport, motorized equipment and aircraft landings are prohibited in wilderness areas, though rare exceptions can be made.
The Forest Service issued the state a temporary special use permit on Jan. 6, 2016, to make up to 120 helicopter landings in remote areas of the Frank Church solely to capture and fit elk with GPS collars.
Fish and Game began its operation the next day. Within two days the agency was done, having collared 57 elk in 112 landings. Fish and Game also collared the wolves, in violation of the permit.
Fish and Game admitted it made a mistake, saying the error was due to miscommunication with the helicopter crew.
Three conservation groups —Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project — sued the Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game, saying the agencies violated the Wilderness Act.
“The land protected by the Wilderness Act is ‘untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,’” Winmill wrote. “The landing of aircraft, among other activities, is banned ‘except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.’ ... The public interest demands that there be consequences for the violations of these laws.”
Congress created the Frank Church Wilderness in 1980. It spans 2.4 million acres, the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48 states.