A federal court recently ordered the Forest Service to destroy data it had collected on elk mortality caused by wolves because the agency violated the law in obtaining the data. The data was acquired by using helicopter landings in a wilderness area and putting tracking collars on elk and wolves. The court held that the Forest Service had violated the Wilderness Act by using helicopters in the wilderness area because that statute prohibits the landing of aircraft in wilderness areas “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.”
The study was conducted at the request of Idaho Fish & Game because of concerns that wolves, which had successfully been reintroduced to the area in 1995, were now rapidly reducing the elk population. While the IDFG intended to conduct the operations over 10 years, it only requested permission for a 5-day operation. The court noted that under the National Environmental Policy Act the Forest Service was required to assess the cumulative impacts of all related projects and the agency had concluded that the project over the long term could likely change the untrammeled nature of the wilderness area. However, the Forest Service’s final approval focused only on the 5-day operation and found it would have no long term effects. The court held that the agency had improperly divided the overall activity into smaller segments in an effort to hide the true overall impacts.
In addition, the court was very much influenced by the fact that it had previously authorized a similar activity but had specifically held that it would be reluctant to approve any further operations and directed the agency to provide time for any challenges to any further operations. Apparently concerned that the agency was trying to skirt its authority, the court was particularly critical of the agency moving very quickly and not allowing for any legal challenges to be filed before it completed the current operation. This fact appeared to be a major reason the court ordered the Forest Service to destroy the data which was collected as a result of the helicopter landings.