Judge orders destruction of radio collar data from wolves, elk

A federal judge has ordered Idaho wildlife officials to destroy radio collar data collected on wolves and elk in the Frank Church Wilderness.

The U.S. Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by allowing the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to land helicopters and collar wildlife within the 2.4 million-acre wilderness area, according to U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill.

Winmill has prohibited Idaho officials from using data collected from 57 elk and three wolves outfitted with radio collars early last year because the Forest Service permitted the project contrary to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act.

Though the helicopter missions are now over, “this is the rare or extreme case” where the destruction of data is warranted to prevent IDFG from justifying future incursions into the wildnerness, Winmill said.

“The only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data — no monetary award or other such sanction will alleviate the ongoing harm,” he said.

Based on aerial surveys, Idaho wildlife officials believed that elk populations in the wilderness area were plummeting due to predation by wolves. This conclusion led them to draft a plan to eliminate roughly 60 percent of the resident wolves in the area.

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,” the ruling said.

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, according to an agency official’s affidavit.

“IDFG uses monitoring data to make informed wildlife management decisions, including appropriate hunting seasons, and to provide technical information and recommendations to USFS on wildlife habitat issues,” the official said. “Requiring the destruction of data would diminish our knowledge of how elk and wolves use this unique landscape and how they interact.”

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.

The Forest Service and IDFG argued the lawsuit was moot, but Winmill disagreed, ruling that Idaho officials are likely to undertake similar short-duration projects in the future.

The judge also agreed that the Forest Service circumvented a NEPA 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.

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