In a major victory for Wilderness and wildlife, federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in January 2017 that the Forest Service’s approval of Idaho Fish and Game’s helicopter-assisted elk-collaring project in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (FC-RONRW) was unlawful, that Idaho Fish and Game illegally collared four wolves, and that Idaho Fish and Game must destroy data gathered from the illegally placed elk and wolf collars. Rejecting the State of Idaho’s argument that it does not need Federal approval to conduct these activities in Wilderness, Judge Winmill was clear—“[t]he ‘overarching purpose’ of Congress in passing the Wilderness Act was to preserve the ‘wilderness character’ of that land[,]” and the State of Idaho “must obtain approval from the Forest Service before undertaking a project in the Wilderness Area.”
The judge ordered IDFG to destroy data from the collars, forbade the agencies from using that data to support future project proposals, and ordered a 90-day implementation delay of future helicopter projects to allow time for legal challenges. The agencies appealed this ruling, conceding they violated the law but arguing the judge didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case because the project was already completed and that the injunction terms were too harsh.
In March 2020, a Ninth Circuit opinion largely upheld the lower Court’s order but narrowed the injunction. It reduced the 90-day implementation delay to 30 days, and held IDFG does not need to destroy the data it obtained illegally, but the Forest Service cannot consider it as a basis for future projects in the Wilderness. Importantly, the Circuit flatly rejected the argument that the agencies could evade judicial review by rushing to complete the project before the judge could rule. While this ruling will make it more difficult for the agencies to avoid judicial review of similar future projects, we know IDFG’s relentless focus on killing wolves isn’t over, and they’ve got their eyes set on the River of No Return Wilderness. We’re watching and ready to head to the courtroom again to protect this spectacular place.
• Read the 2017 decision.
• Read more about the issue in a Wilderness Watch article.
For immediate release – Jan. 19, 2017
Contact: Timothy Preso, Earthjustice, 406-586-9699 Kevin Proescholdt, Wilderness Watch, 612-201-9266 Gary Macfarlane, Friends of the Clearwater, 208-882-9755 Ken Cole, Western Watersheds Project, 208-429-1679
Court Rules That Forest Service Illegally Authorized Helicopter Intrusions in Premiere Wilderness Area
Idaho Must Destroy Data Obtained From Illegal Elk and Wolf Collaring
POCATELLO, Idaho – A federal judge today ruled that the U.S. Forest Service illegally authorized the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to conduct approximately 120 helicopter landings to place radio collars on elk in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last winter in an operation during which IDFG also unlawfully collared four wolves.
As a result, the court ruled, the Forest Service and IDFG are prohibited from using any data obtained from the illegally installed elk and wolf collars in future project proposals, IDFG must destroy the data received from the illegal collars, and the Forest Service must delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the wilderness for 90 days to allow time for legal challenges.
“Today’s decision vindicates the basic principle that a wilderness is supposed to be a wild area where, as Congress said, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,’ not a helicopter landing zone,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill concludes that the Forest Service violated the Wilderness Act and conducted insufficient environmental review in allowing IDFG to land helicopters in the River of No Return in January 2016 to capture and place radio telemetry collars on wild elk. IDFG also captured and radio-collared four wolves during these operations—an unauthorized action that was not permitted by the Forest Service, but that threatened to advance IDFG’s plans to undertake widespread wolf-killing in the wilderness by providing locational information on the collared wolves. The federal Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles including helicopters and requires preservation of natural conditions in wilderness areas.
The judge found that these circumstances present “the rare or extreme case” where an injunction requiring destruction of the illegally obtained radio-collar data is required, stating: “The IDFG has collected data in violation of federal law and intends to use that data to seek approvals in the future for more helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area. … The only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data.”
The helicopter operations that were illegally permitted by the Forest Service are part of IDFG’s broader program to inflate elk numbers above natural levels within the wilderness by eliminating wolf packs that prey on the elk. IDFG’s existing elk and predator management plans call for exterminating 60 percent of the wolf population in the heart of the River of No Return to provide more elk for hunters and commercial outfitters in an area that receives some of the lightest hunting use in the state.
Earthjustice represented Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project in challenging the Forest Service’s decision.
“This action by the Forest Service and IDFG violated everything that makes Wilderness unique,” said Wilderness Watch conservation director Kevin Proescholdt. “It was an unprecedented intrusion with helicopters for the sole purpose to make wildlife populations in Wilderness conform to the desires of managers rather than accept and learn from the ebb and flow of nature.”
Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater added, “Wilderness, by law, is in contrast to areas that are heavily manipulated. Capturing elk with net guns from helicopters is heavy-handed manipulation and denigrates the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.”
“This motorized intrusion on one of our premiere wild areas was made all the worse by the fact that the Forest Service allowed the state to turn natural wolf predation on elk into a reason to degrade the wilderness with helicopter landings,” said Ken Cole, Western Watersheds Project’s Idaho director. “We hope the court’s ruling will compel the Forest Service to prioritize compliance with the Wilderness Act in future decisions.”
At 2.4 million acres, the River of No Return is the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48. It hosts abundant wildlife including elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolves, cougars, and wolverines. It is one of the few public-land wilderness areas of sufficient size to allow natural wildlife interactions to play out without human interference, and for this reason was one of the original wolf reintroduction sites in the Northern Rockies.
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On January 7, 2016, Earthjustice, on behalf of Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project, filed a complaint in federal court to stop the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game from conducting a major helicopter-supported elk capturing and collaring project (of up to 120 helicopter landings) as part of Idaho's egregious plans to eventually kill more than half of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. The FC-RONRW is the largest contiguous Wilderness in the lower 48 states.
The project represents the most significant motorized intrusion ever approved within a national forest Wilderness, where motorized access is generally banned.
Read a press release.
Read the Complaint.
Read our Opening Brief.
Read our Reply Brief.
On January 13, 2016 we learned IDFG used the helicopters to also capture and collar wolves in the Wilderness, another violation of the law and its Forest Service permit.
Just days after we filed the lawsuit, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game admitted they captured and collared wolves in the Wilderness "by mistake," a clear violation of the law and their Forest Service permit. Then in February 2016, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game also admitted the radio collars would "assist with control actions."
In the spring of 2017, the State of Idaho and the Forest Service asked the Idaho District Court to reconsider its injunction requiring the agencies to destroy data obtained from illegally placed elk and wolf collars in the River of No Return Wilderness and to delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the Wilderness for at least 90 days to allow for judicial review. We are pleased to announce the court held firm to its injunction with only a minor clarification that the 90-day project delay applies to helicopter operations for wildlife management purposes. We will continue to defend this important victory and use it as a model for protecting other Wildernesses from heavy-handed wildlife manipulation.
The Forest Service and IDFG have appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit, and Judge Winmill has temporarily stayed the portion of the injunction requiring IDFG to destroy the data until the appeal is resolved.
Photo: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS