At 2.4-million acres, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the lower-48 and 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.
In 2013, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game hired a hunter-trapper to pack into central Idaho’s 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to eradicate two wolf packs, the Golden and Monumental packs, in the interest of inflating elk populations for outfitters and recreational hunters. The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the wilderness, approved the extermination program by authorizing use of a Forest Service cabin and airstrip to support wolf extermination activities.
Earthjustice represented long-time Idaho conservationist and wilderness advocate Ralph Maughan along with three conservation groups—Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Watch—in a lawsuit challenging the wolf extermination program. The conservationists argued that the U.S. Forest Service’s approval and facilitation of the program violated the agency’s duty to protect the wilderness character of the Frank Church Wilderness.
The region of the Frank Church Wilderness where IDFG’s hunter-trapper is killing wolves is a remote area around Big Creek and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Even though this region hosts one of the lightest densities of hunters in the state, IDFG prioritized elk production over protection of the area’s wilderness character. The Forest Service failed to object to IDFG’s plans and instead actively assisted them.
In 2016, a coalition of conservationists, represented by Earthjustice, filed a legal challenge to the decision by the U.S. Forest Service to allow IDFG to conduct approximately 120 helicopter landings in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness as part of a program to manipulate wildlife populations in the wilderness.
At issue is the Forest Service’s Jan. 6, 2016 decision to issue a permit allowing IDFG to land helicopters in the River of No Return through the end of March to capture and place radio telemetry collars on wild elk. The federal Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles including helicopters in wilderness areas.