A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court decision requiring the U.S. Forest Service to wait 30 days before authorizing the use of helicopters to conduct wildlife-management operations in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to allow time for public challenges.
The ruling Monday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction that prevents the Forest Service from using data gathered from radio collars installed on 57 elk in 2016 because the Forest Service approved the helicopter operations in violation of two environmental laws.
In 2016, the Forest Service allowed the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to conduct 112 helicopter landings in the wilderness area to capture and place radio telemetry collars on the elk. Fish and Game also captured and radio-collared four wolves—an action that had not been authorized by the Forest Service.
Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled those actions unlawful in 2017 because the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, including helicopters, in wilderness areas except when needed for wilderness management, and the National Environmental Policy Act requires thorough environmental analysis of these types of actions on federal lands.
The helicopter operations were part of Fish and Game’s program to increase elk numbers by eliminating wolf packs. Elk and predator management plans call for eliminating 60 percent of the wolf population in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Environmental law organization Earthjustice represented Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project in challenging the Forest Service’s decision.
“The court appropriately reminded the Forest Service that it must protect wilderness on public lands, including from state wildlife agencies seeking access to wild places and important habitats,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, in a press release.
Tim Preso, managing attorney with Earthjustice, said in an interview that the ruling will give environmental organizations time to challenge any future proposals to use helicopters for wildlife management in the wilderness.
“We would look at the facts and circumstances of any decision they made,” Preso said.