Letters from the West

Idaho Fish and Game breaks agreement, uses helicopter to collar wolves in wilderness

Wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return, have been a controversial topic since the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in 2014.
Wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return, have been a controversial topic since the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in 2014.

An Idaho Department of Fish and Game crew using a helicopter in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to attach radio collars to elk broke an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and collared four wolves.

The Forest Service approved the use of helicopters Jan. 6 solely to collar the elk. That decision followed an environmental analysis that weighed the possible degradation of wilderness character due to the decline of elk populations against the effect of using mechanized equipment in the wilderness area, affectionately known as “the Frank.”

Fish and Game officials said Wednesday they realize the mistake affects the state agency’s credibility, and they take the matter seriously.

“As the deputy in charge of Fish and Game field operations, I accept full responsibility for this,” said deputy director Ed Schriever. “We will refine our procedures to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The error was due to a breakdown in internal communications, the agency said in a press release.

Mechanical transport, motorized equipment and aircraft landing are prohibited in wilderness, but rare exceptions can be made. Fish and Game crews quickly landed helicopters in remote regions of the Frank to capture elk and fit 60 animals with GPS collars. The Forest Service approved up to 120 helicopter landings.

But the crew broke the the federal agency’s approved protocol, which already was under challenge by a coalition of conservation groups.

“We are fact-finding to learn what happened, and how this happened,” said Chuck Mark, Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor. “As the authorizing official, I take this matter very seriously.”

Conservation groups oppose the plan because they fear the data will be used by state game officials to kill more wolves.

The conservation groups already were unhappy that the Forest Service turned natural wolf predation on elk into a reason to allow helicopters to land in the wilderness. They were even angrier Wednesday.

“The Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s admission today is egregious and adds insult to injury,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “Our view is simple: The River of No Return country is a wilderness, not an elk farm, and we intend to restore the rule of law to the management of this premiere wild landscape that belongs to all of the American people.”

Earthjustice’s lawyers represent Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project in challenging the Forest Service’s decision. The groups seek a court order to prevent use of the helicopter in the wilderness.

The Forest Service had told conservationists Fish and Game would not kill any wolves in the Frank Church wilderness this winter, resolving a previous lawsuit filed after Fish and Game hired a trapper who killed two wolf packs in the Frank in 2014.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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