Court Rules That Forest Service Illegally Authorized Helicopter Intrusions in Premiere Wilderness Area 

Idaho Must Destroy Data Obtained From Illegal Elk and Wolf Collaring 

POCATELLO, Idaho – A federal judge today ruled that the U.S. Forest Service illegally authorized the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to conduct approximately 120 helicopter landings to place radio collars on elk in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last winter in an operation during which IDFG also unlawfully collared four wolves.

As a result, the court ruled, the Forest Service and IDFG are prohibited from using any data obtained from the illegally installed elk and wolf collars in future project proposals, IDFG must destroy the data received from the illegal collars, and the Forest Service must delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the wilderness for 90 days to allow time for legal challenges.

“Today’s decision vindicates the basic principle that a wilderness is supposed to be a wild area where, as Congress said, ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,’ not a helicopter landing zone,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill concludes that the Forest Service violated the Wilderness Act and conducted insufficient environmental review in allowing IDFG to land helicopters in the River of No Return in January 2016 to capture and place radio telemetry collars on wild elk. IDFG also captured and radio-collared four wolves during these operations—an unauthorized action that was not permitted by the Forest Service, but that threatened to advance IDFG’s plans to undertake widespread wolf-killing in the wilderness by providing locational information on the collared wolves. The federal Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles including helicopters and requires preservation of natural conditions in wilderness areas.

The judge found that these circumstances present “the rare or extreme case” where an injunction requiring destruction of the illegally obtained radio-collar data is required, stating: “The IDFG has collected data in violation of federal law and intends to use that data to seek approvals in the future for more helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area. … The only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data.”

The helicopter operations that were illegally permitted by the Forest Service are part of IDFG’s broader program to inflate elk numbers above natural levels within the wilderness by eliminating wolf packs that prey on the elk. IDFG’s existing elk and predator management plans call for exterminating 60 percent of the wolf population in the heart of the River of No Return to provide more elk for hunters and commercial outfitters in an area that receives some of the lightest hunting use in the state.

Earthjustice represented Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project in challenging the Forest Service’s decision.

“This action by the Forest Service and IDFG violated everything that makes Wilderness unique,” said Wilderness Watch conservation director Kevin Proescholdt. “It was an unprecedented intrusion with helicopters for the sole purpose to make wildlife populations in Wilderness conform to the desires of managers rather than accept and learn from the ebb and flow of nature.”

Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater added, “Wilderness, by law, is in contrast to areas that are heavily manipulated. Capturing elk with net guns from helicopters is heavy-handed manipulation and denigrates the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.”

“This motorized intrusion on one of our premiere wild areas was made all the worse by the fact that the Forest Service allowed the state to turn natural wolf predation on elk into a reason to degrade the wilderness with helicopter landings,” said Ken Cole, Western Watersheds Project’s Idaho director. “We hope the court’s ruling will compel the Forest Service to prioritize compliance with the Wilderness Act in future decisions.”

At 2.4 million acres, the River of No Return is the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48. It hosts abundant wildlife including elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolves, cougars, and wolverines. It is one of the few public-land wilderness areas of sufficient size to allow natural wildlife interactions to play out without human interference, and for this reason was one of the original wolf reintroduction sites in the Northern Rockies.



  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Best news I’ve had all week!

  2. Phil Maker Avatar
    Phil Maker

    BRAVO Judge Winmill!! Who makes sure that the data actually gets destroyed (all copies of it)? I would like to see some sort of punishment for USFS on this violation. I heard that the couple who made that “Nature” show about the Frank Church Wilderness had to jump through multiple layers of USFS bureaucratic hoops just to obtain permission to film back there. Yet IDFG proposes to land helicopters; “go right ahead. Anything else we can do for you.” A small amount of justice has been served, for once, in ID.

    1. Isabel Cohen, Artist/Activist Avatar

      This is nothing compared to what Wildlife Services is doing to millions of birds and wild animals every year. Operating under the Department of Agriculture, this bogus organization is destroying so much wild life that in 10 years, there will be little if any left! How dare they use our tax dollars to pay themselves to do this dirty work for the farmers and ranchers? Please help abolish Wildlife Services and put a rein on the US Fish and Wildlife too!

  3. timz Avatar

    They should get one more landing, to return and remove the collars.

  4. Kathleen Avatar

    Memo to Feds…three simple words prevent fiascos like this: Follow. The. Law.

  5. Lynn Anderson Avatar
    Lynn Anderson

    Humans finally engaged in a rare instance of sanity: beauty and preservation of our planet (and only home) are recognized as important as greed & blood-lust.

  6. Valerie Bear Avatar
    Valerie Bear

    I am SOOO glad that Idaho had to finally be accountable for one of their “hate crimes.”

  7. WM Avatar

    I suspect there is a good possibility of appeal. This goes to the very heart of NEPA (and its scope), the Wilderness Act and the Congressional intent in the reserved language for states to manage wildlife (not addressed in the opinion but maybe in precident cited), and the state primacy for managing wildlife species not on the federal ESA list on federal lands.

    All 17 Western states have a stake in this game, and I suspect they want to be heard (Western States Governors’ Conference has a very long list of tensions with the federal government). Both houses of Congress are in the hands of the R’s. There is a new President whose motives are uncertain, but sure to listen to the wish list of those Western states. There are Congressional types with seniority that may push this. And, another elephant in the room is the ability of the new President to appoint federal judges in the R image (from trial courts, Courts of Appeal in all 11 Circuits and the big guys on the Supreme Court), just as federal trial court Judge Winmill was appointed by President Clinton.

    Judge Winmill has, in my opinion, been a very good judge with sound reasoning in his opinions. Will this ruling stand if it goes forward in the federal court system, or if Congress steps in? Lots of questions the day after The Donald takes office. I’m still wondering if there will be gold leaf Louis 14th furniture in the Oval Office, and whether he will require all to address him as “Your Eminence,” and bow in his presence, entering and leaving. Sorry, but I digress.

  8. rork Avatar

    “the sole purpose to make wildlife populations in Wilderness conform to the desires of managers rather” is imputing intent on what to do with the data. I have never collected data with a sole purpose (just primary endpoints and analysis plans, which should be detailed before doing anything). The question is what sorts of data collection should be allowed – when is the goal important enough to allow some intrusion and how much. I immediately admit that I don’t value the data here enough to allow choppers, but there might be other times when I would cut good science proposals some slack.

  9. Kathleen Avatar

    Federal law (the Wilderness Act) trumps (ugh!) (make that *supersedes*) state management actions. The only question here is, is the action necessary to protect wilderness character? and if it’s necessary, is it the *minimum* necessary. By no stretch of the imagination can one answer yes to that when IDFG’s intent is to manipulate predator/prey balance for hunter benefit.

    1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins


    2. Isabel Cohen, Artist/Activist Avatar

      You are so right Kathleen and I am so sick of these guys playing god with our wildlife! It must stop before they are all gone! Google Wild Services. They are the most heinous organization under the Dept. of Agriculture and kill (murder) millions of birds and other wildlife as the request of the farmers and ranchers. Over half a million red-winged blackbirds last year alone!!!

  10. Bonnie Avatar

    Thank god a judge with intelligence and moral values over special interests!! Need more of this kind of judge!

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Press Release