Conservation groups cheered when a federal judge ruled last month that the Forest Service and Idaho Department of Fish and Game violated federal law by landing helicopters in an Idaho wilderness area to attach tracking collars to elk and wolves. The court also ordered the data gathered through these illegal activities destroyed. The now-halted project gives every appearance of an unscientific witch hunt, tailor-made to scapegoat wolf predation as the cause of elk population declines and to justify a wolf-killing program in wilderness.
During the 1980s, a controversy raged in Alaska over whether wolves caused the decline of the Nelchina caribou herd. Vic Van Ballenberghe, a Forest Service scientist, re-examined the issue and discovered that harsh winters started the Nelchina herd on a downward trajectory. Failing to recognize the decline, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game made it worse with overharvest. Ultimately, the scientific community concluded that weather and hunting — not wolves — caused the caribou herd’s decline. Now history is repeating itself in Idaho.
During my master’s research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I got the opportunity to work with Van Ballenberghe on moose in Denali National Park. The dynamics of moose and wolves indicated that in single-predator systems, predators (which have populations limited by territoriality) seldom are numerous enough to drive prey populations downward. Only in cases where prey populations have been driven to low densities by other factors, and there are two or more major predators (like grizzly bears and wolves acting together), can predators keep their prey at low densities.
Wilderness was always intended to be wild and free from human control. Here, according to the lyrical requirements of the law itself, wilderness is directed by law to encompass land “retaining its primeval character and influence,” “affected primarily by the forces of nature,” which is “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
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Turning a wilderness into a heliport with helicopter landings, fitting out elk and wolves with thick leather necklaces, and ultimately waging an air war against wolves, are unnatural in every respect and completely incompatible with wilderness values.
The judge’s decision to destroy the ill-gotten data obtained by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is perfectly reasonable. It was the only just and proper decision that could be made in light of the facts and the law. While conservation groups traditionally support scientific field research, the predator-prey dynamics of elk and wolves can, and should, be investigated elsewhere.
But beyond violations of law, the actions of federal and state bureaucrats in this instance were morally repugnant. In their eagerness to respond to political pressure, state and federal agencies are trying to manage the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness as a game farm. It is intolerable that agencies entrusted with enforcing our laws are themselves wantonly violating them. Perhaps the destruction of data in this case will be the wake-up call these agencies need to start paying attention to their legal and ethical obligations.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist published in the science of ungulate behavior and population dynamics, and is the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group.