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

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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.

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

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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
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Isle Royale Wolves: I Vote for Nature's Way

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Isle Royale Wolves: I Vote for Nature's Way 

By Franz Camenzind

 

Isle Royale is both a National Park (1940) and a designated Wilderness Area (1976). Each authority brings significant protection to the land, but with differing mandates. As a National Park, its clear purpose is to preserve and protect its wilderness character, cultural and natural resources, and ecological processes; where humanity's protectionist's footprint may be very apparent.


As a Wilderness, its clear purpose is to protect the area so as to preserve its natural conditions in a manner that generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature; where humanity's preservationist's footprint leaves at most, only a faint impression.


These mandates contain contradictions that may seem subtle to most, but they can confound management decisions. Isle Royale, known for its wolf population, is facing a critical decision point-to physically import wolves from the mainland to "rescue" the current isolated population which is likely to "blink out" in the next year due to the consequences of severe inbreeding or, to leave nature alone and allow the island's wolf population to disappear. Wolves first arrived on the island in the late 1940s via an ice bridge from the mainland, but their stay appears to be a short one. The question is whether to allow a natural event (likely extirpation) to play out, as was the case when wolves first arrived on the island, or to intervene and extend the wolves tenure by translocating wolves from mainland.


We now face a situation where some argue that the Park's mandate allows for the heavy footprint of an artificial reintroduction of wolves to keep a functioning wolf population on the island. Others argue that the wilderness designation means managers should leave nature to take its course and preserve the area's wild and untrammeled condition even if that means the end of the wolf population on the island. It is nature's way.


Adding to the decision's challenge is the argument that Isle Royale without wolves will result in a moose population explosion (the wolf's major food source and the moose's only significant predator), which will lead to severe over-browsing and long-term habitat damage. Wilderness advocates argue that this impact too would pass. If over-browsing occurs and moose populations subsequently decline, the habitat will very likely rebound. This happened before wolves arrived on the island (moose predate wolves on the island by several decades). It's nature's way.


Although their origins are uncertain, what is known is that moose first appeared on Isle Royale at the very beginning of the 20th Century, decades before the first wolves arrived. It is widely accepted that the particularly cold winter of 1948-49 allowed an ice bridge to form, which in turn allowed the first wolves to cross the 15 miles from the mainland to the island. However, for nearly half a century the island, and its moose, survived without wolves. Interestingly, during that wolf-free period, it is quite clear that moose had severely over-browsed their forest habitat and were on the verge of starving out. Not surprisingly, the habitat recovered, and so did the moose population.


Scientists say that moose populations are controlled by available forage as much or even more so than by the presence of wolves. Clearly, for decades, the two acting together have made for a very interesting and natural dynamic. But in the long course of ecological events, their decades-long drama may have been nothing more then a brief relationship.


I vote for nature's way. I do so because ninety-nine percent of Isle Royale's 134,000 acres is Wilderness, and so a different type of "management" is required for this place, one that respects the area's wild character and does not try to manipulate wildlife populations or habitat conditions on the island. In other words, impose a management decision not to manage.


I also support nature's way because capturing and hauling wolves in from the mainland will not alter the overriding reality-Isle Royale is an island only occasionally connected to the mainland by an ice bridge. By itself, the island is too small to sustain a long-term, genetically healthy wolf population, and perhaps the same can be said for the moose population. I have to ask, if a "rescue" were to occur, when would inbreeding again overtake the isolated wolf population and when would demands for another "rescue" be made? Would this human manipulation become the new normal? How is this natural? How does this leave the Wilderness untrammeled? How does this maintain the Park's or its Wilderness' natural processes?


It doesn't.


Some rescue proponents insist that if the island's wolves die off, over 60 years of wolf-moose research will come to an end. Without a doubt, the Isle Royale wolf-moose dynamics have been superbly documented throughout this time as the longest major predator-prey study in history. However, if wolves are purposely brought onto the island, what will it do for the continuity of the research? It will effectively change a natural study paradigm into a manipulated (island) laboratory research project, one whose results will always require a disclaimer that the findings were influenced by human intervention and no longer represent a naturally occurring phenomena.

 

In effect, it would be new research that could best be described as a "before and after" intervention study and difficult to claim as an uninterrupted, continuation of the previous work.
Proponents of wolf "rescue" also argue that with climate change, ice bridges and natural re-colonization by wolves are less likely to occur, therefore human intervention is justified, if not necessary. A logical scenario, but other climate-driven factors are also coming into play on the island. Perhaps most significant is the documented change already occurring in the vegetative regime on the island, a change not favoring the moose population. As the habitat's vegetation shifts away from moose-preferred species, will the moose population again be put in jeopardy? If this is the case, do we "rescue" the moose population too? Or do we initiate a wolf reduction program to safeguard the remaining moose? Or do we initiate a moose reduction program in an attempt to safeguard the remaining habitat? Where does this intervention end?


We forget that Isle Royale is an island and cannot operate like an expansive and complex mainland landscape. Like most island settings, its species composition is much simpler then the nearby mainland. For example, only 19 species of mammals occur on the island compared to over 40 on the surrounding mainland. Consequently, its ecological systems are far simpler then those operating on the mainland. And because of its limited size, it cannot support populations of low density species such as the wolf or other large carnivores that require large, connected landscapes to sustain their own numbers, and their own genetic diversity. And we forget that as far back as 3,500 years ago, the island was home to woodland caribou and Canada lynx. And coyotes made it to the island on their own around 1905, but disappeared by 1955. Consensus is that they were all eliminated due to human actions. Do we re-colonize the island with these previous, naturally occurring residents, ones lost not naturally, but through deliberate human actions? We face a dilemma of conflicting values; not one solved with on-going intervention. When would it end?


And last, the decision to "rescue" the island's wolf population might be easier to accept if doing so would be a step toward saving the species from extinction. This is not the case. What happens to the wolves of Isle Royale will have little to no impact on the species' overall survival.


Allow Isle Royale to be a wilderness park, let its future be shaped as it was during its not so distant past-by nature's forces, not humankind's manipulated version of a "natural" island system. Then and only then can we observe and learn how island ecosystems truly function. There aren't many places like this left in the world, let us not spoil it with heavy-handed intervention.

Franz Camenzind, Ph.D.
Jackson, Wyoming
02/27/2018
 

 

Franz is a wildlife biologist and the Vice-President of Wilderness Watch's board of directors.

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Guest — scott
Great post. What a shame. Once done the Island can never again be said to be a true wilderness untouched by man (not many of the... Read More
Monday, 19 March 2018 08:44
Guest — August Allen
Amen. Wonderful post.
Saturday, 17 March 2018 12:13
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Bigger is Better

Bigger is Better
By Howie Wolke

howie 05 03 13 201This essay appeared in our Spring 2017 newsletter.

When it comes to wilderness, bigger is better. This is as true from an ecological perspective as it is from that of the human wilderness experience.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness (in part) as “…at least 5,000 acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition…” Although as a Montanan, 5,000 acres seems pretty small, the Act’s authors recognized that wilderness is fundamentally distinct from tiny areas of protected open space, such as many county parks or small state recreation areas, with size being one of its distinguishing characteristics.

From a human perspective, it is difficult to experience wilderness values such as awe, oneness with nature, solitude and challenge in a small woodlot or county park hemmed in by noisy roads or machines. The authors of the Wilderness Act rightly understood that in the face of our growing and expanding civilization, if folks accepted postage-stamp sized natural areas as “Wilderness”, then our perception of wilderness would lose its unique distinction. And as the wilderness idea is cheapened, so too, is wilderness on the ground.

From a biocentric perspective, conservation biologists assert that size of a protected area is crucial to maintaining native biodiversity. So is connectivity. And often ignored is the interior to edge ratio of protected lands.

Large wild areas with connectivity to other wildlands protect native species populations from inbreeding depression, random loss of adaptive genetic traits (common in small isolated populations), disease, and environmental events such as wildfire, flood or prolonged drought. Species that have specific habitat needs such as old growth forest or undisturbed sagebrush steppe are particularly vulnerable to the problems associated with small isolated habitats. So are large carnivores, which naturally occur in much lower densities than prey species, and thus are spread thinly across large areas. Many of these vulnerable creatures are called “wilderness dependent species” and small isolated wildland tracts do not promote their survival.

I also mentioned interior to edge ratio. As human population growth continues to spiral out of control, most protected wildlands are increasingly impacted by human activities on surrounding lands. Logging, mining, roadbuilding, road “hunting”, poaching, urban sprawl, off road vehicles, livestock grazing, fences, power corridors, dams and diversions and more all serve to isolate wilderness areas. When wilderness boundaries are amoeba-shaped with “cherry-stemmed” exclusions, we create lots of edge compared with more secure interior habitat. Along the edges are where many of these destructive human activities occur. So not only is bigger better, but so are areas with holistic boundaries that minimize edge.

The problem is that what works best on the ground is often forsaken by the increasingly sketchy politics of wilderness conservation. Many conservation organizations now get funding from foundations that demand “collaboration” with traditional wildland opponents. And all too often these collaborations produce “wilderness” boundaries that exclude all or most of the potential conflicts in order to mollify the opposition. These processes create compromised wilderness units that are small, isolated and laden with boundary intrusions and non-wilderness corridors that create much edge and minimal secure interior habitat. Moreover, so-called wilderness proponents often accept or even promote special provisions in wilderness bills that clash with the intent and letter of the Wilderness Act. Or, they sometimes actually support agency actions that overtly violate the Wilderness Act.

Of course, our political system is based upon compromise, and compromise works when both sides have legitimate concerns and common goals. When it comes to wilderness, though, we do well to remember that each wilderness debate begins with an already greatly compromised remnant wildland. And also, wilderness areas laden with legislated exceptions to the letter of the Wilderness Act are not really wilderness in any meaningful sense of the word.

So, bigger is better. In North America, we find healthy populations of grizzly bear, wolf, lynx and many other species only where big wilderness is a dominant landscape feature. Healthy watersheds thrive only where the entire watershed is protected. Also, dynamic disturbance-driven natural vegetation patterns can be maintained only in large protected landscapes. For example, natural wildfire patterns are not allowed to prevail in small nature preserves near suburbs or commercial timber stands.

In other words, temptations to compromise wilderness in terms of size, “collaborated” boundary exclusions and diminished internal untrammeled qualities are immense in 21st century industrial America. Protecting and maintaining real wilderness won’t get easier. But unless wilderness organizations develop a better understanding of what real wilderness is and the importance of size, connectivity and wholeness, it is unlikely that the very concept of wilderness will survive for many more generations. And I mean generations of the four-leggeds and all members of the biotic community, in addition to the upright two-legged great apes that we call “human”.


Howie Wolke is an ornery old wilderness guide from southern Montana and is a recent past President of Wilderness Watch.

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Guest — Maggie Frazier
Absolutely! Just knowing there ARE wilderness areas that care & protect our native species - both plant & animals - gives me such... Read More
Thursday, 03 September 2020 16:44
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