BOISE, Idaho – Three of four wolves fitted with tracking collars in a central Idaho wilderness area last year by state officials without federal approval are surviving as another winter approaches.
The surviving wolves from three different packs are still roaming the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, officials said. An adult female died in May near the middle of the wilderness because of unknown causes.
The U.S. Forest Service in January issued a notice of non-compliance to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game after the state agency violated an agreement by using a helicopter to put collars on the wolves while also collaring about 60 elk for an approved elk study.
State officials blamed miscommunication with the helicopter crew.
"The collaring of wolves in the wilderness was a black eye," Jim Hayden, an Idaho Fish and Game biologist, said Tuesday. He confirmed the three wolves remained alive by checking a computer that downloads information from the collars.
The collars give the location of the wolves once every 12 hours. That information isn't accessible to the public. Hayden said the wolves represent three packs and that each pack has a territory of about 265 square miles. It's not clear how many wolves are in the packs.
The wolf collaring resulted in a federal lawsuit filed in January initially challenging the use of helicopters in a federal wilderness, where machines are generally banned. A ruling is pending on whether to prevent Idaho from using information from the collars to track and kill the wolves and other members of their packs.
"We want to prohibit the use of any of the data to further or advance Idaho's wolf-killing program in the wilderness," said Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice.
The 3,700-square-mile mountainous and inaccessible River of No Return is generally considered a sanctuary from which young wolves disperse in search of new territory. Idaho officials have previously targeted that population.
In January 2014, Earthjustice asked a federal judge to stop a state-hired hunter from using the Forest Service's backcountry airstrips to reach and kill wolves in the wilderness. The judge rejected the request for a temporary restraining order, but state officials pulled out the hunter after he killed nine wolves.
State officials opted to not send a hunter into the wilderness last winter. Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler said Wednesday he wasn't aware of any plans to send a hunter into the area this winter.
Hayden said that because of the accidental and random nature of the collaring of the wilderness wolves, and the small number of collared wolves, the only information being gleaned is anecdotal.
"It's not very useful for management," he said. "It's providing us information on where the territory is for these three packs and how they use the wilderness. Since capture, they've been almost entirely in the wilderness."
The lawsuit involving the wolf collars includes the much bigger aspect about helicopter use in a federal wilderness, which Preso said could set a precedent for other wilderness areas around the country when a ruling is made.
He said Idaho's use of helicopters to collar the elk was the most extensive helicopter intrusion the Forest Service has ever authorized in a wilderness area.
He said his group is also concerned about altering wilderness predator-prey dynamics through human intervention by killing wolves.