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Greens Fight Elk-Collaring in Wilderness

POCATELLO, Idaho (CN) - A Forest Service plan to use helicopters to catch and collar elk violates federal law and threatens the sanctity of one of America's last wilderness areas, environmentalists claim in court.

Wilderness Watch and two other environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service on Jan. 7 in Federal Court, challenging its authorization of an "unprecedented" plan to carry out 120 helicopter landings in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

"(T)his is the most extensive helicopter intrusion on wilderness character that has ever been authorized in the National Wilderness Preservation System," the groups say in the 38-page complaint. Co-plaintiffs are the Friends of the Clearwater and the Western Watersheds Project.

Known for its deep canyons and expansive river systems, the area is the largest contiguous unit of protected wilderness outside Alaska, more than 2.3 million acres bordered by Gospel-Hump Wilderness to the northwest and the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north. It is second in size in the Lower 48 states only to California's roughly 3 million-acre Death Valley Wilderness, which consists of many noncontiguous pieces.

The "elk-collaring" project was proposed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) and would be carried out under the state's Elk Management Plan. It would take place in the River of No Return's roughly 1.7 million-acre Middle Fork Zone and involve collaring 60 elk per year, including calves and adult females, for up to 10 years, according to the complaint.

The environmentalists say the plan is an effort to inflate elk numbers for hunters and protect ranchers' livestock from wolves that once were listed as endangered.

"IDFG asserts that elk numbers in the River of No Return have declined unacceptably from their levels in the 1990's, before the reintroduction of gray wolves to the wilderness landscape and the associated restoration of natural predator-prey dynamics," the environmentalists say. "The objective of IDFG's elk-collaring project is to collect data indicating the causes of elk population decline - which IDFG hypothesizes is largely attributable to what it terms 'excessive' predation by native wolves - that will inform IDFG's decisions concerning hunting, trapping and 'predator control' actions in the wilderness."

Wolves, which Idaho has managed since 2009, were reintroduced in 1995 and taken off the endangered list in 2011.

IDFG spokesman Mike Keckler said the wolf population is out of balance.

"In early 2014, we estimated there could be 90 to 95 wolves in the Middle Zone. Our predator management plan calls for between 35 and 40 wolves in the Zone," he told Courthouse News on Monday.

"Between 2001 and 2011, elk populations have decreased by 43 percent. That's the latest data we have, so we want to put collars on these animals ... and then monitor their survivability over time. They'll transmit data for three years, and then when [an elk] stops moving, we will determine the cause of death."

Keckler said other predators kill elk, such as mountain lions and black bears, but that habitat loss from fires and invasive weeds and other factors also come into play.

He estimated there are 770 wolves statewide, but that those are only the ones the IDFG has been able to document, and that the agency is only doing its job in trying to strike a balance of interests.

"This is about monitoring populations. That is what we are doing there," Keckler said. "The Forest Service, they manage the land; we manage the wildlife and monitoring populations is an essential part of wildlife management. We are doing our job. We are managing the wildlife of the state of Idaho, for the people of the state."

Keckler said that part of managing wildlife in Idaho necessarily involves reducing wolves' impact on livestock and the state's recreation industry.

"We want surpluses for hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing," he said. "We want to reduce the impacts [of wolf predation] on private property owners, ranchers and others in those areas where predator and prey numbers are out of balance."

In 2013, the IDFG hired a trapper to eradicate "as many wolves as possible," but suspended the activity after wilderness advocates filed a lawsuit to stop it. The trapper killed nine wolves, according to Wilderness Watch.

Tim Preso, with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., said the Forest Service's authorization of the IDFG plan violates the Wilderness Act.

The Act prohibits activities that Congress determined are "antithetical to wilderness character - including helicopter landings and placement of installations such as radio telemetry collars on wildlife - unless 'necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area' as wilderness.'"

"They (IDFG personnel) are doing their job, but the Forest Service also has a job to do - make sure the wilderness is managed under the Wilderness Act so it is protected for all Americans, that the agencies are allowing natural processes to occur without manipulation by people," Preso told Courthouse News. "So the helicopters are for the purpose of gathering data, so Idaho can manipulate the populations."

The environmentalists also claims the Forest Service also violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not preparing an environmental impact statement analyzing the effects the helicopter-assisted project will have on elk, subjecting them to netting, darting and anesthetizing.

Also named as defendants are the Secretary of Agriculture, the Regional Forester of Forest Service Region Four, and the supervisor of Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Wilderness Watch wants the court to set aside the Forest Service's notice of final decision, its finding of no significant impact and temporary special use permit, and to prohibit the agency from implementing the operation. They also seek costs and attorneys' fees.

The plaintiffs are represented by Dana Johnson of Wilderness Watch, in Moscow, Idaho; and Timothy Preso and Katherine O'Brien of Earthjustice, in Bozeman, Mont.

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