Idaho wildlife managers trapped and collared four wolves by mistake in an elk-collaring project already facing legal challenges for using helicopters in a federal wilderness area.
“(Idaho Department of) Fish and Game officials realize this mistake affects the agency’s credibility and takes the matter seriously,” IDFG spokesman Mike Demmick wrote in an email acknowledging the incident. “The error was due to a breakdown in internal communications.”
Last week, the Salmon-Challis National Forest authorized IDFG to use helicopters to catch and collar 30 elk cows and 30 calves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, a 1.7 million-acre zone along the Montana border north of Stanley, Idaho. Several environmental groups objected to the project on grounds that the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits mechanized access to wilderness areas and that the Forest Service had failed to justify the need for the study.
“They have no credibility when it comes to this,” said George Nickas, director of Missoula-based Wilderness Watch and one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. “The fact they were collaring elk alone is bad enough. It’s not a secret that this is really all about wolves. We believe this whole project was really about controlling wolves anyway.”
The collaring project took place Thursday through Saturday last week. IDFG biologists successfully captured all 60 elk they hoped to get in that time. They also captured and collared four wolves, although “the operational agreement with the Forest Service did not include collaring of wolves,” Demmick said.
“As the deputy in charge of Fish and Game field operations, I accept full responsibility for this,” IDFG Deputy Director Ed Schriever said in an email. “We made a mistake in not clearly communicating mission limitations to one of our helicopter crews. We will refine our procedures to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Wilderness Watch joined with Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project against U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Forest Service Region 4 Forester Nora Rasure and Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Charles Mark in suing over the project last Thursday.
The case is before U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill, who also decided a 2010 case involving IDFG biologists using helicopters to capture and collar wolves in the same area. In that case, Winmill ruled that the rare and unusual need to study a recently reintroduced predator justified violating the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on mechanized access.
But Winmill also chastised the Forest Service for rushing the authorization, writing “the Forest Service is on notice of this Court’s concerns and would be expected to render a final decision enough in advance of the project so that any lawsuit seeking to enjoin the project could be fully litigated.”
“We believe the Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game colluded in setting this up so it couldn’t be stopped,” Nickas said. “They waited to sign the decision until the helicopters were fired up and ready to go.”
When they announced the project, IDFG officials stated they wanted to learn more about declining elk populations in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and other parts of the state. Gray wolves were reintroduced in the area in 1995. Elk numbers on public land have fallen by 43 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to IDFG surveys.