SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of environmental groups asserts that the U.S. Forest Service is flouting key wilderness designations in the Wasatch Mountains by considering a state proposal to use helicopters in a study of big game populations.
Wilderness Watch filed a formal objection to a draft finding by the Forest Service approving helicopter landings in the Lone Peak, Twin Peaks and Mount Timpagnogos wilderness areas for capturing and collaring a small population of mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
"We believe the study can be done in a way that is more compatible with wilderness management. The Forest Service's proposed action is an unnecessary intrusion into some of our most treasured lands that see far too many impacts already," the objection states, with signatories that include leaders of Western Wildlife Conservancy and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Forest Service's draft decision would allow the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to capture, collar and sample up to 20 mountain goats and up to 10 bighorn sheep. The groups assert that to support the activity, the management strategy would require 30 hours of low-level helicopter flights and 60 landings.
State wildlife managers are concerned about stagnant or declining populations of the animals and possible disease. The wilderness designations interfere with the agency's ability to properly assess the herds' viability for recreational viewing or hunting, according to documents
Environmental groups insist it is not necessary and outside wilderness designation management proscriptions.
"The proposal here would authorize helicopter intrusions and electronic installations in three wildernesses on a basis — a state’s asserted need to collect wildlife-population data to inform big game management decisions — that could not justify helicopter use in the wilderness as a matter of course," their objection states.
"While UDWR may manage wildlife in wilderness, “wildlife and fish management programs (must) be consistent with wilderness values,” the objection continued, quoting federal regulations.
The Forest Service, in its environmental analysis, said to do nothing could result in potentially devastating consequences to the wilderness attributes of the areas, with particular concern that disease may be spreading from one species to the other.
"If no action is taken, there is legitimate concern that these species' populations will continue to decline and this important aspect of the natural quality of wilderness could be impacted," the agency said.
"If no action is taken, the effect to the natural quality could range from minor to catastrophic (loss of one or both of the herds) with potential significant and long-duration effects," it continued.
In its objection filed last month, the groups are asking the Forest Service to deny the authorization of helicopters for big game management or prepare a more extensive environmental impact statement to take a "hard look" at the proposal's impacts.