A Legal Win for the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and a Call to Protect Wolves and Wilderness in Idaho

Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

You might recall that in January 2016, the U.S. Forest Service authorized Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to make 120 helicopter landings in the River of No Return Wilderness to place radio telemetry collars on 60 elk, despite the Wilderness Act’s clear prohibition on motorized intrusions and its directive to preserve an untrammeled Wilderness. To our knowledge, this was the most extensive helicopter intrusion in Wilderness that has ever been authorized. IDFG said the project was necessary to study an elk-population decline that has occurred since the return of gray wolves to the Wilderness and to inform IDFG’s future decisions concerning hunting, trapping, and “predator control” actions in the Wilderness.

 

Represented by Earthjustice, Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project filed suit in Federal District Court—hours after receiving a copy of the signed special use permit authorizing project implementation. Within the next three days—over the weekend—while the suit was pending and before we could get before the judge, IDFG inundated the River of No Return Wilderness with repeated helicopter flights and landings. And, even though it was abundantly clear IDFG was not authorized to harass and collar wolves, IDFG nonetheless captured and collared four wolves. IDFG released those 60 elk and four wolves with collars transmitting precise location points to IDFG – an agency with an unapologetic history of wolf extermination efforts and a current plan to “aggressively manage elk and predator populations,” including exterminating 60 percent of wolves within the Middle Fork Zone of the River of No Return Wilderness.

 

The judge assigned to the case was no stranger to this issue. Back in 2010, after the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho, the same judge sat on our case where IDFG requested permission from the Forest Service to use helicopters to dart and collar at least one wolf in every pack in the same area. The judge reluctantly allowed the activity because the case represented the “most rare of circumstances” where “[i]t was man who wiped out the wolf from this area[, and] now man is attempting to restore the wilderness character of the area by returning the wolf.” But, the judge noted “the next helicopter proposal in the [Wilderness] will face a daunting review,” and “[t]he Forest Service must proceed very cautiously here because the law is not on their side if they intend to proceed with further helicopter projects in the [Wilderness].” The judge also put the Forest Service on notice that it “would be expected to render a final decision [on any future helicopter projects in the Wilderness] enough in advance of the project so that any lawsuit seeking to enjoin the project could be fully litigated.” 

 

Not surprisingly, the judge was concerned that “[t]he agency ignore[d] that directive in the present case,” and then the agencies argued that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to review the case because IDFG had already completed the action. The Court rejected that argument, found the Forest Service in violation of the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and enjoined IDFG and the Forest Service from utilizing the fruits of their illegal activity. Specifically, the judge’s order 1) forbade the Forest Service from considering the data from the illegally placed collars and from approving any future wildlife-related helicopter projects without delaying implementation for at least 90 days to allow time for litigation, 2) forbade IDFG from using any of the illegally obtained collaring data to justify future collaring proposals in Wilderness, and 3) ordered IDFG to destroy data received from the collars.

 

Both the Forest Service and IDFG appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But, the appeal was narrow. The agencies did not contest their violations of the Wilderness Act and NEPA. Instead, they argued, once again, that the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place because the action was already done and that, even if it did have jurisdiction, it went too far in its injunction against IDFG and the Forest Service. 

 

In March 2020, after four years of litigation, we received an opinion from the Ninth Circuit largely upholding the lower Court’s order but narrowing the injunction. The Circuit reduced the 90-day implementation delay to 30 days, and it held IDFG does not need to destroy the data it obtained, but the Forest Service cannot consider that data as a basis for any future projects in the Wilderness. Importantly, the Circuit flatly rejected the argument that the case could evade judicial review by virtue of the agencies rushing to complete the project before the judge could rule, noting:

 

[The Forest Service] was aware that Wilderness Watch had lodged objections to the proposed operation and planned to challenge the permit in court at the first opportunity. On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, Wilderness Watch received notice of final agency action and requested a copy of the permit. On Thursday, January 7, Wilderness Watch received a copy of the permit, effective immediately, and filed its complaint. Wilderness Watch requested that the agency halt implementation of the operation to allow for a legal challenge. [The Forest Service] did not respond to this request until close of business on Friday, January 8. The agency denied the request. Wilderness Watch prepared a motion for emergency injunctive relief on Saturday, expecting to file it first thing on Monday, only to receive notification on Sunday that the operation had been completed earlier that morning. This sequence of events transpired in spite of the district court’s admonishment to [the Forest Service], in a 2010 proceeding regarding a similar helicopter operation, that the agency would be expected to issue future permits with enough time to allow for potential legal challenges. The record shows that in the weeks leading up to the issuance of the subject permit, Wilderness Watch reminded [the Forest Service] of the 2010 order. The record also makes clear that IDFG plans future helicopter operations, and that [the Forest Service] approval was motivated, at least in part, by the IDFG’s threat to proceed irrespective of [the Forest Service’s] approval and the [the Forest Service’s] desire to avoid litigation with the [IDFG] Director.

 

While this ruling will make it more difficult for the agencies to avoid judicial review of similar projects in the future, we know we have not seen the last of IDFG’s relentless focus on killing wolves, and we know they’ve got their eyes set on the River of No Return Wilderness. And, as the Ninth Circuit observed, the Forest Service has taken pains to avoid a show-down with IDFG—we have no indication this will change either. In fact, shortly after we received news of the Ninth Circuit opinion, IDFG announced that it killed 17 wolves in the Lolo area in Idaho—a remote, roadless area in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Wolves in the Lolo area have been brutally targeted by IDFG for years in an effort to inflate elk numbers to meet IDFG’s objectives. We know from Freedom of Information Act documents and other reports that IDFG regularly utilizes GPS collaring data to track and kill wolves, oftentimes through aerial gunning. Even more appalling, the documents and reports also show that IDFG and cooperating agencies utilize “Judas wolves”—a collared wolf that is tracked to its pack via GPS data. The pack is killed, but the collared “Judas wolf” is spared and then tracked until it establishes with another pack. Then that pack is gunned down, once again sparing the collared wolf who is doomed to repeat this horrible cycle over and over again. 

 

IDFG’s narrative about the Lolo area sounds remarkably similar to the story it is telling about the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. It has a plan to kill 60 percent of the wolves in the heart of the Wilderness to return elk numbers to levels observed in the 1990s – before the return of wolves to the Wilderness and before the restoration of natural predator / prey dynamics. We assume IDFG will pull no punches in pursuing that goal. We’ve already seen, and challenged, IDFG’s use of a professional trapper to kill two resident wolf packs—the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs—deep in the Wilderness. The Forest Service authorized IDFG’s use of a Forest Service cabin to serve as the trapper’s base camp, and it waived special use permit requirements, which allowed IDFG to proceed without public notice or federal oversight. As noted above, we challenged two IDFG helicopter-assisted collaring projects in the Wilderness, both geared toward advancing IDFG’s Elk Management Plan and its “aggressive” predator control measures. These projects were carried out under authorization from the Forest Service, including the rushed implementation of the second project in blatant disregard of a federal court order. And, in the last year, IDFG has significantly relaxed hunting limits on wolves and pushed to open airstrips within and adjacent to the Wilderness to increase hunter access. 

 

All of this is going on with Forest Service acquiescence and to the detriment of Wilderness, the values it safeguards, and the wild places and animals that find increasingly rare refuge within its borders. The Forest Service—the agency entrusted to protect this Wilderness pursuant to the tenets of the Wilderness Act—has demonstrated that it finds IDFG the squeakiest wheel. We will keep the pressure on in the courts, but we need to be louder than IDFG. We need to raise our collective voice in defense of this incredible place, in defense of the animals who call it home, and in defense of the idea of Wilderness. Intensive manipulation of wildlife populations is fundamentally antithetical to preserving “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and “primeval character and influence” are retained. The use of helicopters to pursue, capture, and place telemetry tracking collars on wild animals deep within the Wilderness—to transmit their every movement to a computer, manned by a “game” agency that places high value on control and manipulation—is fundamentally antithetical to everything Wilderness is about. It’s well beyond time for the Forest Service to take a stand for Wilderness.

 

And, even though its track-record is not encouraging, IDFG can also take this as an opportunity to pivot. IDFG will face growing public opposition to its wolf eradication and Wilderness manipulation efforts, and the latest court case has made it much more difficult for IDFG’s activities to slide under the radar of judicial review. It is time for IDFG to adopt an approach to wildlife management that respects natural processes and Wilderness. It is incumbent upon the Forest Service to ensure this happens.

 

You can help defend wolves and Wilderness in Idaho by writing to the responsible U.S. Forest Service officials and demand they stop sanctioning Idaho’s aggressive predator killing programs.

 

You can also make a special donation to Wilderness Watch to help us continue the fight to defend wolves and Wilderness in Idaho.

------------------

Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

Recent comment in this post
Guest — Stephen
I'm here to do my part to protect our wilderness...! Keep me up to speed here...!
Monday, 16 November 2020 15:09
Continue reading

State Agency Game Farming Is Not Compatible with Wilderness or Ecosystem Integrity

By George Wuerthner

gwuerthner 03 25 13With the delisting of wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, their management has been turned back to the individual states where wolves occur. Most of these state agencies are adopting policies that treat wolves as persona non grata, rather than as valued members of their wildlife heritage. Nowhere do I see any attempt by these state agencies to educate hunters and the general public about the ecological benefits of predators. Nor is any attempt to consider the social ecology of wolves or other predators reflected in management policies. Wolves, like all predators, are seen as a “problem” rather than as a valuable asset to these states.

State agencies are increasingly adopting policies skewed toward preserving opportunities for recreational killing rather than preserving ecological integrity. State agencies charged with wildlife management are solidifying their perceived role as game farmers. Note the use of “harvest” as a euphemism for killing. Their primary management philosophy and policies are geared toward treating wildlife as a “resource” to kill. They tend to see their role as facilitators who legalize the destruction of ecological and wilderness integrity, rather than as agencies dedicated to promoting a responsible land and wildlife ethic.

Want proof? Just look at the abusive and regressive policies states have adopted to “manage” (persecute) wolves and other predators. Idaho Fish and Game, which already had an aggressive wolf killing program, recently announced it will transfer money from coyote killing to pay trappers to kill more wolves so it can presumably increase elk and deer numbers.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks supports new regulations that will lengthen the wolf killing season, increase the number of tags, and reduce the license fee charged to out of state hunters. In 2011, the agency requested permission to kill all but 12 wolves in the Bitterroot Mountains, including those within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, claiming wolves were killing too many elk.

Wyoming is even more regressive. Wolves are classified as “Predatory Animals” in much of the state and can be shot on sight at any time without a license or a “bag limit” in many parts of the state.

Alaska, which already has extremely malicious policies toward wolves, is attempting to expand wolf killing even in national parks and wildlife refuges (it is already legal to hunt and trap in many national parks and refuges in Alaska). For instance, Alaska Fish and Game (AFG) is proposing aerial gunning of wolves in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and wants to extend the hunting/trapping season in Lake Clark National Park, Katmai National Park, and Aniakchak National Preserve. The state has also proposed aerial gunning of wolves and gassing of pups in their dens in the Unimak Wilderness, ostensibly to increase caribou numbers. Fortunately, after a national public outcry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected this proposal.

Similar persecution of wolves to various degrees is occurring in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is on a vendetta against a small newly established mountain lion population in that state, and has greatly increased its mountain lion killing quotas.

The point is these agencies are still thinking about predators with a 19th- century mindset when the basic attitude was the “only good predator is a dead predator” and the goal of “wildlife management” was to increase hunter opportunities to shoot "desirable” wildlife such as elk, deer, moose, and caribou.

Many state game farming agencies suggest they have to kill predators to garner “social acceptance” for them. Killing wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions is suggested as a way to relieve the anger some members of the ranching/hunting/trapping community have towards predators. Is giving people who need counseling a license to kill so they can relieve their frustrations a good idea?

Despite the fact that many of these same agencies like to quote Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, and venerate him as the “father” of wildlife management, they fail to adopt Leopold’s concept of a land ethic based upon the ecological health of the land. Leopold understood that ALL wildlife play an important role in wilderness and ecosystem integrity. Leopold wrote: “The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

To keep every cog and wheel means not only keeping species from going extinct, but maintaining the ecological processes that maintain ecosystem function. What makes state game farming policies so unacceptable is that there is no excuse for not understanding the ecological role of predators in ecosystem integrity. Recent research has demonstrated the critical importance of predators for shaping ecosystems, influencing the evolution of prey species, and maintaining ecosystem integrity. We also know that predators have intricate social relationships or social ecology that is disrupted or destroyed by indiscriminate hunting.

Yet state game farming agencies continuously ignore these ecological findings. At best, their policies demonstrate a lack of professionalism. At worst, they show the agencies are as ignorant of recent scientific findings as many of the most vocal hunters/trappers they serve.

The problem is that state game farming agencies have a conflict of interest. Their budgets depend on selling killing permits, which depends upon the availability of elk, deer, moose, and caribou. Any decline in “game” animal populations is seen as a potential financial loss to the agency.

Therefore, these agencies tend to adopt policies that maintain low predator numbers. Yet, these same agencies are never up front about their conflict of interest. They pretend they are using the “best available science” and “managing” predators to achieve a “balance” between game and predators.

Because of this conflict, game farming agencies turn a blind eye to ethical considerations. Most of the public supports hunting that avoids unnecessary suffering of the animals. People want to know the animal was captured and/or killed in an ethical manner. In other words, the animal had a reasonable chance of evading the hunter/trapper and is consumed rather than killed merely for “recreation” or, worse, as a vendetta. But when the goal is persecution, ethics and “fair chase” are abandoned.

If the agencies continue down this path, it’s clear they will lose legitimacy with the public at large, and efforts to take away management authority will only strengthen. For instance, voters in a number of states have already banned the recreational trapping of wildlife, always over the objections of state game farming agencies. Efforts are now afoot to ban trapping in Oregon and other states may soon follow suit.

The trend towards greater restriction is seen as the only way to rein in the abusive policies of state game farming agencies. In California, voters banned hunting of mountain lions in 1991, and an effort is underway to ban bobcat trapping. Oregon banned hunting of mountain lion with dogs. In other states, there are increasing conflicts between those who love and appreciate the role of predators in healthy ecosystems and state game farming agencies.

Bans on all hunting have even occurred in some countries. Costa Rica just banned hunting, and Chile has so limited hunting that it is effectively banned. I suggest that the maltreatment of predators displayed by state game farming agencies will ultimately hasten the same fate in the U.S.

George Wuerthner has visited over 400 designated wildernesses across America, and  published 36 books on a variety of environmental, geographical and wilderness topics. He has worked as a biologist, backcountry ranger, river ranger, hunting guide, and wilderness guide. He now conducts research on predators, wildfire, and wildlands conservation topics.
Continue reading

Cleaning up the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act

Jerry Peak Ken StraleyFor several years Wilderness Watch has been been a leading voice in opposition to the the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA). Working alongside 46 other grassroots conservation groups, we have vigorously fought the most egregious terms of this dangerous, precedent-setting, quid pro quo land bill. Some of those most concerning to us included highly fragmented, watered-down Wilderness-in-name-only designations—where private interests would take precedent over the public good, 5,000 acres of land giveaways and the release of 200,000 acres of potential Wilderness from current protections—opening them to damaging off-road vehicle (ORV) abuse.

This year, Wilderness Watch is happy to report that our work has vastly improved Wilderness provisions in CIEDRA, Senate Bill 3294. Gone from the bill are most of the provisions allowing extensive motor vehicle use, habitat manipulation, and commercial special interest rights in the Wilderness it designates. We’ve asked Congress to make a few additional changes to CIEDRA so it adequately protects the wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds of central Idaho. These requests include removing motorized corridors splitting the Wilderness into four fragments, protecting Wilderness Study Areas released by the bill from degradation—by prohibiting increased ORV use and corridors, and modifying CIEDRA’s language to precisely match that of the Wilderness Act so the Boulder-White Clouds is administered to protect its wilderness character.

Thank you to all of the groups and individuals who helped clean up this bill! This is a real victory for activists and public land lovers who reject the harmful trade-offs of quid pro quo wilderness legislation.

Click here to read a statement by Wilderness Watch, Western Lands Project, and Friends of the Clearwater on CIEDRA for the hearing record
Click here to listen to the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests hearing on 6/16/10
Continue reading

Contact Us

Wilderness Watch
P.O. Box 9175
Missoula, MT 59807
P: 406-542-2048
E: wild@wildernesswatch.org

Minneapolis, MN Office
2833 43rd Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55406

P: 612-201-9266

Moscow, ID Office
P.O. Box 9765
Moscow, ID 83843

Stay Connected

flogo RGB HEX 512   Twitter Logo gold   Insta gold

Search

Go to top