David and Cindy Chojnacky’s Jan. 30 guest opinion (“Wildlife protectors should augment positions with on-the-ground research”) overlooked key facts in criticizing a judge’s ruling ordering the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to destroy data from radio collars illegally installed on 60 elk and four wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The judge determined this was the “rare or extreme case” where such an order was required to remedy unlawful conduct and protect the wilderness. The facts of this extraordinary case support that conclusion.
IDFG installed the radio collars during an unprecedented project involving approximately 120 helicopter landings over three days in this flagship wilderness — the most extensive helicopter intrusion ever in the National Wilderness Preservation System, where federal law generally prohibits motorized use.
The U.S. Forest Service authorized IDFG to implement this project immediately, with no time for public challenges — even though the same judge directed the Service in 2010 to allow time for legal challenges before implementing helicopter projects in the wilderness.
The Service authorized IDFG to land helicopters in the wilderness to radio-collar only elk — but IDFG also unlawfully radio-collared four wolves.
This project advances IDFG’s aggressive elk and predation management plans for the Middle Fork area of the wilderness, which call for killing 60 percent of the wolf population to inflate elk populations beyond natural levels. IDFG’s vision of a wilderness that is engineered to boost elk numbers is at odds with the Wilderness Act’s definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
IDFG moved to impose its vision on the wilderness in 2013-14, when it hired a trapper who killed nine wolves in the Middle Fork before trapping was suspended under pressure of a court challenge. Since then, IDFG has sought to collect data to support wilderness wolf killing. That was the purpose of last winter’s helicopter operations. And IDFG wanted to use the resulting data to justify nine more years of helicopter intrusions in the wilderness.
But as the Forest Service concluded, a decade of helicopter landings would degrade wilderness qualities for years to come. To prevent the illegally obtained data from promoting such degradation, the judge ordered IDFG to destroy it. Although the Chojnackys contend the data should instead be objectively analyzed, IDFG in 2015 rejected a proposal for an objective interagency analysis of elk population dynamics in the wilderness involving no helicopter intrusions. We support that proposal, but we oppose IDFG’s trammeling of the wilderness.
In sum, this project was outside the mainstream of wildlife management, violated the law and threatened to degrade one of our nation’s most prized public wildernesses. That is why we challenged it in court on behalf of local conservationists — not, as the Chojnackys speculate, for “flashy media coverage” or “donor appeals.” We will continue to stand up for wilderness in one of the last areas in the lower 48 that is big and wild enough for predators and prey to live in natural balance.
Tim Preso is managing attorney for the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, the nation’s premier nonprofit environmental law organization.