Idaho Wants to Use Copters to Track Wolves

Idaho wants federal permission to put radio collars on wolves that have roamed the remote mountain region since their 1995 reintroduction.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho wants federal permission to land helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness this winter to put radio collars on wolves that have roamed the remote mountain region since their 1995 reintroduction.

The request to the U.S. Forest Service to allow motorized transport into a federally protected wilderness other than at established airstrips coincides with the state taking over management of the endangered predators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The state was to formally take over management at a Thursday ceremony in Boise with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Foes of the helicopters are threatening to sue if the Forest Service acquiesces, saying such flights are banned by rules governing the 2.4-million-acre wilderness. They also fear state game managers will use information from the radio collars to eventually track and kill wolves, which now number 500 in Idaho.

Wolf managers with the state Department of Fish and Game said using helicopters to collar wolves -- the aircraft have been flying since December to count elk -- is vastly more effective than trapping them on foot.

Information gathered from the collars will underpin the state's effort to lift Endangered Species Act protections from wolves by providing information on packs and their behavior, they said.


The collars will help biologists "learn where the wolves are denning, where their rendezvous sites are, so we can go in at a later date and count them," Steve Nadeau, Fish and Game's top wolf manager, said in a Wednesday interview. "This proposal is to improve our knowledge of wolves in the wilderness."

Idaho game managers want to use helicopters to collar as many as 16 gray wolves that are members of about six packs.

State biologists, already flying on helicopters on big-game counts that occur every three to five years, would shoot tranquilizer darts from the air. The helicopters would hover over the stunned animals, while the biologist springs to the ground to collar the wolf, then administer a tranquilizer antidote before climbing back aboard the aircraft.

"We may not land once, if we don't see a wolf," Nadeau said. Still the plan said each wolf collaring could require three landings.

Curt Mack, a wildlife biologist with the Nez Perce Indian tribe that has a hand in Idaho's wolf oversight, said managers have struggled for years to keep collars on wolves in the Frank Church Wilderness. As a result, information on the predators there is scarce. Using helicopters could help remedy that, Mack said.

And because the choppers are already flying on game-counting missions, "the impacts on the wilderness will be fairly minimal," he added.

Still, conservation groups, including the Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey, and Defenders of Wildlife, which oversees a $200,000 fund to pay ranchers whose livestock falls prey to wolves, say they're dubious.

In a letter to the Forest Service, Western Watersheds director Jon Marvel, who currently has at least seven environment-related lawsuits against federal agencies, threatened more litigation if the agency allows the helicopters.

Marvel argues the federal legislation that created the Frank Church area in 1980 included compromises such as allowing outfitter camps, boats on the Salmon River and existing wilderness airstrips. But it barred helicopter landings elsewhere except when needed to save human life.

"You open the door to aircraft in the wilderness anywhere you see a wolf, you open it when you see an elk or anything else," Marvel said Wednesday.

The debate underscores the mistrust between wolf advocates and Idaho.

Marvel and Suzanne Stone, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife in Boise, believe information from radio-collar tracking eventually will be used by Idaho game managers to track and kill wolves that prey on elk, which are prized by hunters.

Idaho currently has about 40 wolf packs; according to the state's federally approved management plan, it must maintain a minimum of 15.

"We would be very concerned if this action led to increased lethal control of wolves within the wilderness, based on the elk populations there," Stone said.

Forest Service Region 4 Forester Jack Troyer, responsible for an area that includes wilderness in Idaho, Nevada and part of Wyoming, Utah and California, will decide soon, officials said. Since Dec. 4, the agency has received some 700 public comments on Idaho's helicopter proposal.

"Our first concern is to protect the wilderness," Liz Close, the Forest Service's regional director for recreation, heritage and wilderness resources in Ogden, Utah, told The Associated Press. "Our responsibility does not change. It's a question: Can we find a way to accommodate what the state needs to do while still meeting our mandate to protect the wilderness?"

Source: Associated Press

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