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Wednesday December 13th, 2017 9:37AM

Idaho fighting order to destroy wilderness wolf, elk data

By The Associated Press
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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials are challenging a federal court order to destroy information collected from tracking collars placed on elk and wolves obtained illegally by landing a helicopter in a central Idaho wilderness area.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore on Tuesday requested a stay of the judgment in U.S. District Court in Idaho pending the agency's appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in January the U.S. Forest Service broke environmental laws nearly two years ago by authorizing Idaho Fish and Game to put collars on about 60 elk by landing helicopters in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where engines are prohibited.

Idaho also collared four wolves in an action the Forest Service didn't authorize. Fish and Game blamed miscommunication with a helicopter crew.

Winmill wrote that it was such an extreme case "the only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data."

Specifically, Fish and Game is seeking to stay the court's order to destroy data and to stay the court's prohibiting the agency as well as the Forest Service from using that data.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game "agrees that as a condition of such stay, IDFG would not use any live radio collar placed during the January 2016 helicopter project in the Frank Church Wilderness to locate wolves for lethal removal," the document states.

Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness Watch sued the Forest Service in January 2016 when they learned of the helicopter flights. Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice handling the case, said the groups will continue to seek to force Fish and Game to destroy the data.

"The problem is they've now got almost two years of data that tells them wolf pack locations and where focused activity is and their seasonal movements," Preso said. "It makes it very easy for them now to target those packs."

The 3,700-square-mile (9,600-square kilometer) mountainous and inaccessible River of No Return is considered a sanctuary from which young wolves disperse in search of new territory. Idaho officials have previously targeted that population by sending in a state-hired hunter in 2014 that killed nine wolves.

State officials have been concerned wolves are having a detrimental effect on elk populations pursued by sport hunters. But environmental groups contend wilderness areas are specifically set aside to allow for natural prey-predator dynamics free of human interference.

In late 2016, Fish and Game said three of the four collared wolves were alive. An adult female died in May 2016 near the middle of the wilderness because of unknown causes. The other three wolves from three different packs were at the time still roaming the wilderness area.

The collars give the location of the wolves once every 12 hours. It's not clear if the three wolves are still alive or if the collars are still working.

Mike Keckler, Fish and Game spokesman, said the agency isn't discussing the court case or the data. Some of the documents in the case filed on Tuesday are sealed and unavailable to the public.

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