Elk with radio collar

An elk with a radio collar.

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ordered the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife to destroy data collected from wolf and elk collars that he determined were attached unlawfully to animals inside a national wilderness area.

We think destroying data that does no harm to the animals is an overreach that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should overturn.

In 2017, Winmill ruled that a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing Idaho officials to use helicopters to collar elk inside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness had been authorized contrary to federal environmental and wilderness laws. But that was more than a year after the animals had been collared.

Three environmental groups — Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project — sought an injunction against the project, but it was completed before any court hearings could be held.

Initially, IDFG wanted to tranquilize and collar wolves and elk in the course of more than 1,000 helicopter landings over 10 years to confirm their suspicions that elk populations in the wilderness area were plummeting due to predation by wolves.

However, the agency kept scaling back the project until it required only 120 helicopter landings to collar 60 elk — and no wolves — over two days in January 2016.

Though the permit issued by the Forest Service only allowed elk to be collared, an IDFG crew leader “wrongly assumed” that “opportunistic collaring of wolves” would be in line with the agency’s “common practice” during past helicopter flights.

The judge ruled that the Forest Service circumvented a National Environmental Policy Act requirement to analyze long-term effects of the helicopter expeditions. The federal government allowed IDFG “to get away with slicing its long-term helicopter collaring project into a one-year sliver of a project to mitigate the cumulative impacts,” he said.

The Forest Service couldn’t make an informed decision about the “necessity” of collaring because IDFG had divided its project “into a smaller proposal that hid the true nature of the impacts,” which also violated the Wilderness Act, Winmill said.

Since the helicopter flights have stopped and the animals are already collared, Winmill ruled that the only remedy to address the harm is the destruction of the data that has been collected.

In seeking to overturn Winmill’s injunction, agency officials last week argued that Idaho has a sovereign interest in managing its wildlife and once the helicopter flights had ended, the National Environmental Policy Act doesn’t control the state’s ability to collect and possess the collar data, according to the state agency.

State officials acted in good faith, and were operating under what was at the time a lawful permit issued by the controlling authority. At issue in the original complaint was the Forest Service’s alleged violations, not the state’s actions.

Wildlife advocates claim the data put three wolf packs at risk. That assumes a predetermined outcome from the use of that data when it is a tool that can be used for effective management.

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