PORTLAND — Idaho wildlife officials want to overturn a federal judge’s order to destroy data collected from wolf and elk collars that he determined were attached unlawfully.
In 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled that a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing Idaho officials to use helicopters to collar elk had been authorized contrary to federal environmental and wilderness laws.
By the time the judge had reached that conclusion, however, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had already collared 57 elk — as well as four wolves that had been “opportunistically” tranquilized during the helicopter flights.
As a remedy for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Wilderness Act, Winmill ordered Idaho officials to destroy the collar data collected from the elk and wolves.
The judge said it was the “rare or extreme case where a mandatory injunction is required” because IDFG “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 Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
The state agency, joined by the federal government, is now asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dissolve that injunction because the judge had abused his discretion by ordering Idaho to destroy its own property.
Idaho has a sovereign interest in managing its wildlife and once the helicopters 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.
“There is no ongoing violation of federal law,” said Owen Moroney, IDFG’s attorney, during Oct. 22 oral arguments before the 9th Circuit in Portland, Ore.
While collaring wolves contrary to the federal permit was a “mistake” that was “frankly embarrassing to the agency,” Idaho shouldn’t be required to destroy the associated telemetry information, Moroney said. “It’s still valid data.”
Idaho’s arguments were backed up by an attorney for the Forest Service, who claimed the judge should have issued a more “narrowly tailored” injunction order rather than one requiring the data’s destruction.
“The remedy is divorced from the alleged harms that flow from the permit,” said Thekla Hansen-Young, attorney for the federal government.
The environmental groups that initially filed a lawsuit opposing the helicopter permit — Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project — argued the injunction was appropriate.
“The data is only in their hands because federal law was violated,” said Timothy Preso, attorney for the organizations.
Since the Forest Service is the “gatekeeper” that allowed the state to carry out the helicopter mission, it’s necessary for the data to be destroyed to provide “relief” for the federal government’s violations, he said.
“The appellants don’t dispute that they violated the law,” Preso said. “They’re just here to tell you the federal courts can’t do anything about it.”
Idaho’s possession of the collar data remains a threat to three wolfpacks that would face elimination to boost elk numbers in the wilderness area, he said.
“The district court was worried there would be further harm to the wilderness by killing the wolves,” Preso said. “It’s obviously a big leg up in carrying out that plan.”