Friday, December 18, 2009

Will helicopters land in Church wilderness?

State seeking Forest Service approval to help collar wolves

Express Staff Writer

A decision appears imminent on whether the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will be able to land helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to tranquilize and attach radio collars to wolves.

The decision, to be made by the U.S. Forest Service, could come as soon as today or Monday.

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, said he believes Fish and Game will be given the green light. Marvel met with Forest Service Regional Forester Harv Forsgren and Regional Wilderness Specialist Randy Welsh on Friday, Dec. 11, to discuss the proposed special-use authorization that Marvel's organization and other wilderness conservation groups has opposed.

According to Marvel, Forsgren said the Forest Service was going to approve the proposal, though on Thursday, Welsh said in an interview that a decision had yet to be made.

According to the scoping document outlining the proposal, released by the Forest Service in mid-September, Fish and Game would like to land a helicopter in the wilderness up to 20 times over a two-week period this winter, likely in late March. The helicopter would be part of a research project to observe, dart and collar up to 12 gray wolves in the region north of Stanley.

"As the managing authority for gray wolves in Idaho, [Fish and Game] has determined a need to collect wolf population data within the [Frank Church Wilderness]," the document reads. "The Forest Service is considering authorizing requested landings of helicopters to support ... the scientific and research purposes of wilderness."

For Marvel, however, the proposal is problematic on two levels, namely the helicopter landings and the collaring of wolves.

"You could say that the helicopter won't have a huge negative impact, as it will just be touching down for a few minutes, but it's a matter of principle. Why set aside the wilderness in the first place?" Marvel said. "I believe this ignores the intent and spirit of the Wilderness Act, and it's an intrusion into the wilderness with no real gain."

Though he admitted it would be more difficult, Marvel said the research could be carried out on foot or horseback, as is done by the Nez Perce Tribe, which also monitors wolves in part of the wilderness.

As noted in the scoping document, though, the Wilderness Act states that "the designation of an area as wilderness shall not impede a state's ability to manage wildlife resources."

Marvel contended that the collaring of wolves would be less about about scientific research and more about continuing and possibly increasing legalized wolf hunting.

"From the surface, it could seem like a benign experiment to track wolves, but I have to believe there's a more sinister intent," Marvel said.

Marvel said his organization might pursue litigation against the Forest Service should the proposal be approved.

Jon Duval:

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