Judge orders information destroyed
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
January 21, 2017
U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill of Idaho has ordered the destruction of information gained as the result of placing radio collars on wolves and elk in an Idaho wilderness area. The destruction of data was requested by Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project.
According to the Winmill’s order in the case, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) received approval from the Forest Service to use helicopters in the Frank Church Wilderness to tranquilize and collar elk with monitors to trace their movements. Both agencies were concerned about reductions in the elk population in the Wilderness Area, and the project was designed to obtain data that might explain the mortality problem. Ignoring a prior directive of the Court, the Forest Service allowed the project to begin immediately, preventing plaintiff environmental groups from being able to timely seek injunctive relief. Within three days the IDFG project was completed, and 57 elk and 4 wolves were collared.
"The environmental groups filed this lawsuit to prevent the IDFG from using the data and to require that it be destroyed. They complained that the IDFG obtained approval by proposing a small plan that hid the much larger impacts of their long-term plan. In this decision, the Court agrees, and holds that the Forest Service’s approval of the project violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Court also finds that the IDFG violated the terms of the approval when it collared the wolves.
"The Court will enjoin the Forest Service from considering the data collected, and will enjoin the IDFG from using the data in any way when it seeks future Forest Service approvals. Although the harm of having helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area has passed, there is ongoing harm because the IDFG continues to hold – and plans to use – data that was obtained in violation of federal law. The Court will therefore order the IDFG to destroy that data."
The court noted that "the injury to the plaintiffs’ interest in the wilderness character of the Wilderness Area is real and cannot be compensated for by a monetary award. The balance of hardships tips toward plaintiffs because the elk collaring data was gathered in violation of NEPA and the Wilderness Act. The public interest demands that there be consequences for the violations of these laws."
The court continued: "This is the rare or extreme case where a mandatory injunction is required. The IDFG has collected data in violation of federal law and intends to use that data to seek approvals in the future for more helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area. While the helicopter landings represent harm that has passed, the IDFG’s possession of the data constitutes an ongoing harm that continues to this day and beyond. The only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data – no monetary award or other such sanction will alleviate the ongoing harm. Thus, the Court will issue a mandatory injunction ordering the Director to destroy the data received on the elk and wolves collared in this project."
The complete Memorandum Decision of the court is linked below.