Idaho officials want to use a helicopter in the investigation of a 43% drop in the elk population in the Frank Church of No Return Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Kaibob National Forest / CC BY-SA 2.0
Allowing a helicopter to fly in a protected Idaho wilderness area is a rare but necessary exception to congressional restrictions against such flights, according to a senior U.S. Forest Service official who approved the operation.
Three wilderness-protection advocacy groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service, the head of the U.S. Agriculture Dept. and others to keep a helicopter from supporting an elk-population survey in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. The groups argued that the federal Wilderness Act that permits the existence of such wilderness preserves and that other environmental laws prohibit the use of mechanized equipment in those areas.
But “rare exceptions can be made,” said the supervisor of the federal Salmon-Challis National Forest (which includes the 1.3 million acres of what Forest Service staffers call “The Frank”) in a Jan. 7 guest opinion in the newspaper The Idaho Statesman. Forest Supervisor Chuck Martin wrote that his job is to ensure The Frank’s “clear rivers, deep canyons and rugged mountains [that] provide habitat for mountain lions, gray wolves, black bears, lynx, red fox, bighorn sheep, elk, moose and deer, among others.”
While the Forest Service oversees the wilderness, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages wild life in it. That department is concerned about what it said is a 43% decline in the elk population over nine years ending in 2011. It wants to attach GPS tracking collars to elk and track them for three years. It told the Forest Service it needs a helicopter to reach the animals.
“Careful consideration that included analysis of information” from various public interests convinced Mark that helicopter flights of up to five days (not necessarily consecutive) are “warranted for purposes of wilderness administration,” he wrote. He also argued that his approval of the flights “does not establish a precedent” because future proposals would “require a separate analysis with comprehensive public involvement.” The plaintiffs argue that the flights could set a precedent.