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Groups sue to stop helicopter use in Idaho wilderness area

By KEITH RIDLER
Of the Associated Press

BOISE — Three environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service to challenge a decision allowing helicopters to land in a central Idaho wilderness area so state wildlife officials can outfit elk with tracking collars.

Wilderness Watch, Western Watersheds Project and Friends of the Clearwater filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Idaho. They said the federal agency is violating the Wilderness Act and other environmental laws by allowing helicopters into the rugged Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Wilderness areas generally don't allow mechanized equipment.

“It sets a terrible precedent,” said Tim Presso, an attorney with the law firm Earthjustice. “It's just completely out of keeping with what Congress designated.”

The groups say they also are concerned that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is aiming to gather information to justify killing wolves in the area.

The agency wants to find out why elk populations have declined, Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler said. He said elk numbers dropped about 43 percent between 2002 and 2011.

“We want to get in there and place collars on elk and get a clearer understanding of just what's causing this decline,” he said.

Workers with tranquilizing darts would shoot elk from the helicopter and then land to attach GPS tracking collars. The agency is aware of the wilderness’ character, and helicopters would be on the ground for as short a time as possible, Keckler said.

The agency hopes to attach 60 collars, divided among cow elk and calves, that work for up to three years. The locations of the elk would be monitored remotely, and workers notified of a death by a signal that is stationary would fly in to try to determine the cause.

“Predation certainly does have a role,” Keckler said. “We know that. But there could be other factors. Bottom line, there are many variables.”

Biologists also hope to gather information about the number of cow elk compared with the number of calves. The so-called cow-calf ratio is an indicator of whether the population is growing, holding steady or shrinking.

The state manages wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service oversees the River of No Return Wilderness. The federal agency on Wednesday approved Fish and Game's request to use helicopters in the area.

Forest Service officials didn't return a call from The Associated Press on Friday.

The environmentalists’ fears about wolves come as Idaho officials hope to see the number of predators dwindle. They created a Wolf Depredation Control Board in 2014 intended to reduce the wolf population.

In April 2014, the state had an estimated 770 wolves in 104 packs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In previous legal wrangling, Earthjustice asked a federal judge in January 2014 to stop a state-hired hunter from using the Forest Service's backcountry airstrips to reach and kill wolves in the River of No Return Wilderness.

The judge rejected the request for a temporary restraining order, but state officials pulled out the hunter after he killed nine wolves.

State officials opted to not send a hunter into the wilderness last winter.

Environmentalists say the remoteness of the River of No Return makes it a sanctuary for wolves, from which they can spread to other states.

It's not yet clear if environmentalists will ask a judge to block the helicopter flights this winter, said Presso of Earthjustice.

Keckler said flights could begin at any time but didn't know if any were immediately planned.

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