BOISE, Idaho — A federal plan for handling cattle and sheep predators in designated wilderness areas could breathe new life into a proposal to land helicopters in millions of acres of pristine forest in Idaho for the purpose of tracking gray wolves, environmentalists say.
A proposal before the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division, which traps and shoots wild animals known to prey on livestock, would tweak a 1993 agreement between the two agencies.
The revision would update Forest Service policy to allow as “last resorts,” animal sharp-shooting from helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and poison baiting in protected wilderness areas, Katie Armstrong, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said Monday.
Still, an approval by a regional forester would be required, so the policy change is not a “back door way to open up wilderness areas to motorized vehicles,” she said.
The changes might have implications for an ongoing Forest Service review of the Idaho Department of Fish & Game’s proposal to land helicopters in the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, a rugged swath of mountains and wild rivers in central Idaho.
Earlier this year, state biologists were flying on helicopters for aerial elk population estimates conducted every three to five years. They hoped to use the opportunity to shoot tranquilizer darts at wolves from the air, then briefly touch down to attach tracking collars to animals in the roughly nine packs roaming the wilderness area.
But in January, Intermountain Regional Forester Jack Troyer, based in Ogden, Utah, rebuffed the state agency’s request to fast-track a waiver of the helicopter landing ban.
State wildlife officials bemoaned the decision, saying it would trigger a lengthy environmental review and make it harder to estimate how many wolves occupy the remote wilderness.
Environmentalists hailed the decision, but their joy quickly turned to jitters. Jon Marvel, executive director of the pro-wolf Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho, said the tracking plan now could sail through the federal approval process in the wake of the Forest Service policy shift.
Nationwide, he said foes of the federal policy revision are threatening to sue if the predator control changes become final. The Forest Service is accepting public comment until Aug. 7.
Environmentalists fear that helicopters could mar the untouched beauty of the wilderness area, but there is also concern that such a tracking program would signal the covert beginnings of a push to kill more wolves, Marvel said.
“There is a point of view within Fish & Game and the governor’s office that wolves need to be monitored at all times in order to kill them if they want to,” he said. “That’s an unspoken truth in Idaho.”
Steve Nadeau, Idaho Fish and Game’s gray wolf coordinator, countered that the agency has no plans to kill wolves in wilderness areas.
He did not know if the shift in Forest Service policy would give the regional forester more latitude in allowing helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, but said the state agency is pressing forward with its wolf-tracking plans, no matter what.
“That hasn’t gone away at all,” he said.
The tracking efforts underpin the state’s push to lift federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves. On Jan. 5, the state Department of Fish & Game formally took over management of gray wolves south of Interstate 90 — a precursor to federal de-listing of the species.
Federal wildlife managers are in control north of the highway, where regulations remain stricter.
Gray wolves have rebounded to “recovered” status since a reintroduction program was spearheaded in 1995. If they are de-listed, Nadeau said sport hunters, not helicopters or poison bait, would be authorized to kill wolves in wilderness areas, if necessary.
Hunters have blamed wolves for thinning elk herds in the state, while ranchers assail the brisk success of the reintroduction program, saying more packs mean more cattle and sheep deaths.
The state has also asked for federal permission to kill as many as 45 wolves in northcentral Idaho to help restore lagging elk populations.
In June, state wildlife officials, in cooperation with the federal Wildlife Services Division, killed four wolves and authorized the culling of three more that attacked livestock, according to a news release.
That’s good news to Lloyd Knight, of the Idaho Cattle Association. He said wolves don’t differentiate between wilderness and non-wilderness areas, so neither should game officials.
“If there’s easy food somewhere, they’ll travel a long way to get to the buffet and then go back into that wilderness area,” he said.
By: JESSE HARLAN ALDERMAN – Associated Press