Few places in America provide an experience that matches the sheer magnitude of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48. Its clear rivers, deep canyons and rugged mountains provide habitat for mountain lions, gray wolves, black bears, lynx, red fox, bighorn sheep, elk, moose and deer, among others. Wildlife distribution, abundance and diversity represent one measure of the natural value of wilderness.
As forest supervisor, my responsibility is to ensure the protection of wilderness characteristics within “The Frank,” as many of us call it. So when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) approached the Forest Service with concerns about the decline in the Middle Fork elk population and plans to address it, I had to carefully analyze the request. You see, IDFG seeks to use a helicopter to aid elk collaring activities, an activity prohibited in wilderness except in rare instances.
After receiving a formal proposal from IDFG, the Forest Service initiated an environmental analysis that weighed the possible degradation of wilderness character due to the decline of elk populations and the effect of using mechanized equipment in The Frank.
My decision is based on careful consideration that included analysis of information provided by a variety of public interests. In the end, I decided to authorize the limited use of helicopters by IDFG for monitoring elk in The Frank. While the use of mechanical transport, motorized equipment and aircraft landing are prohibited in wilderness, rare exceptions can be made. In this case, I am convinced that helicopter use is warranted for purposes of wilderness administration in this case.
IDFG will land helicopters in remote regions of The Frank to capture elk and fit 60 animals with GPS collars. Helicopter operations will take up to five days — not necessarily consecutive — beginning as early as mid-January and ending in March while elk are herded together.
My decision does not establish a precedent for future actions in The Frank or any other wilderness. Any future proposal will require a separate analysis with comprehensive public involvement and analyzed on its own merits, including an evaluation for proposed prohibited uses. I am obligated to protect the wilderness resource. On rare occasions, the authorization of helicopter landings is warranted, in order to provide for longer-term conservation of wilderness.
Communication among IDFG, conservation organizations and the Forest Service is critical to understand the cause of the Middle Fork elk decline while protecting the special character of The Frank. Through IDFG’s study, we will gain vital information about elk population trends, and mortality causes that will inform greater understanding of wildlife population interactions and habitat requirements in the wilderness.
I’m grateful to all who care about our federal lands and understand the special nature of The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I look forward to continuing to work with all concerned about the management of The Frank.
Chuck Mark is the forest supervisor of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, U.S. Forest Service.