Conservation Groups Seek Protection of Wildlife in Bridger-Teton

Forest service failing to study impacts of escalating helicopter skiing and snowmobile use


Tim Preso, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, (406) 586-9699
Scott Groene, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, (307) 734-6004
Pam Lichtman, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, (307) 733-9417
Steve Jones, Wyoming Outdoor Council, (307) 332-7031

Concerned that lynx, wolverines, and other wildlife are not receiving the protection required by law, a coalition of conservation groups today asked a Wyoming federal judge to review recent Forest Service permits for helicopter skiing and snowmobile tours on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In its complaint, the coalition asserts that the Forest Service has neglected to conduct legally-required studies, and is therefore gambling with the future of irreplaceable wildlife resources.

“We are fortunate that the Bridger-Teton continues to host populations of some of our country’s most spectacular wildlife, including the rare lynx and wolverine,” said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the groups. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service isn’t doing what the law requires to safeguard these species.”

In December, 2001, the Forest Service issued six permits — one for commercial helicopter skiing across the Teton, Gros Ventre, Wyoming, and Snake River ranges; one for commercial snowmobile tours in the Granite Creek and Gros Ventre drainage and the Togwotee Pass areas; and four for the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail segments. By failing to analyze how wildlife would be affected, the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

“The Forest Service shortchanges the public’s interest in preserving wildlife when it ignores the concerns of biologists,” said Scott Groene, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “These permits are the latest in a pattern of Bridger-Teton decisions that have failed to consider the consequences of forest management on the future of wildlife.”

The helicopter skiing permit raises special concerns because it arbitrarily doubles the number of permitted skiers from 468 to 900 and allows helicopter traffic into areas that are home to animals that are extremely sensitive to human pressures. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department recommended that the Forest Service consider restricting helicopter access in wildlife areas such as the Hoback River watershed, where average wintering bighorn sheep numbers have plummeted from 31 to 4 since the advent of helicopter skiing. But the Forest Service ignored the state agency’s recommendations. Helicopter skiing also threatens one of the few known populations of wolverines, an increasingly rare species that finds refuge in the Teton Range.

“Wolverines den from February to April in exactly the same remote high-mountain country that helicopter skiers prefer,” said wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “Female wolverines with young have abandoned their dens upon finding human tracks in the area. The noise and disturbance of repeated helicopter trips forecloses any wolverine denning where helicopter skiing occurs.”

“The purpose of our nation’s environmental laws is to ensure that potential impacts on wildlife are assessed and known before action is taken, so that protective measures can be put in place,” Preso added. “We will ask a federal judge to ensure that this principle is followed.”

The conservation groups will seek an order to protect wildlife habitats in the Hoback River area and Teton Range and to delay the doubling of helicopter skiing permitted by the Forest Service, until the agency completes necessary environmental studies.

“We will ask the court to address specific wildlife concerns,” said Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “More than 95 percent of the helicopter skiing terrain on the Bridger-Teton Forest will remain unaffected by this court action. People will still have an opportunity to go helicopter skiing. But we hope that wildlife will also have an opportunity to make it through the winter.”

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