The Jan. 19 Idaho Statesman article(s) “Judge orders Idaho to destroy elk and wolf wilderness data” outlined a court decision that seems ignorant of the unique Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (“Frank”). The Earthjustice attorney’s claim that helicopter flights for wildlife research in the Frank involves the “sanctity of the concept of wilderness” is either naïve or deliberately deceptive. Enabling legislation for this 2.4 million-acre wilderness involved compromise by our own late Sen. Frank Church including 18 airstrips, in-holdings and jet boats on the Salmon Main Fork. Backcountry lodges that predated wilderness include cabins, lawns, hay fields, generators, roads, tractors and trucks.
We don’t fully understand particulars of the complex court case focused on National Environmental Policy Act compliance. But we know the Frank, both from professional and recent experience. At a resupply stopover last summer at a fly-in-ranch in the Frank (part of a monthlong backpacking trip traversing Central Idaho), we heard concerns about diminishing elk herds and the local belief that wolves were the culprit. The Associated Press article said Idaho officials sent a contract hunter to kill nine wolves in 2014. It seems odd to litigate efforts to understand elk-wolf dynamics. The court order to destroy research data seems wasteful and capricious. Should state officials just keep killing wolves? In a conservative state like Idaho, this court action may play well to naïve out-of-state citizens and foundations but fuels local hostility against conservation.
What’s the real motive for such a lawsuit led by Earthjustice? Its website shows about 260 staff; lots of attorneys, communication and media people but little or no ecological or scientific staff. A 2016 annual report shows about $55 million total revenue (65 percent from individuals, 26 percent from foundations and 9 percent from estate gifts). Maybe a federal/state faux pas over “helicopters in the wilderness” offered low hanging fruit for a quick win in court — flashy media coverage, a story for the Earthjustice 2017 portfolio and more donor appeals to keep funds flowing to “save the wolves” and “save the wilderness.”
To brand attempts to understand/manage wildlife populations as illegal “manipulation” seems to negate any respect for state responsibility for wildlife. If the litigating Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) really cared about elk and wolves, they could do complementary winter research via snowshoes and cross country skis. Given the vastness and inaccessibility of the Frank Church, this would indicate a true commitment to this area and its wilderness values.
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In a conservative state where government, predators and public lands are viewed with suspicion, we wilderness advocates are saddened by NGOs complicating the issues and poorly researched judicial work supporting them. Instead of destroying data and wasting the thousands of dollars of public funds spent to obtain it, we would like to see support for understanding the wilderness and our relationship to it. If nothing else, release the data to an objective university for analysis; do not destroy it.
David Chojnacky is a Jerome native affiliated with Virginia Tech University; Cindy Chojnacky is a writer/consultant. Both worked for the U.S. Forest Service most of their careers; they now live in Hailey. Since 2012 they have visited or revisited 40 U.S. wilderness areas.