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By Brett Haverstick

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Taking a long trip into the backcountry during winter doesn’t appeal to some people. That’s understandable. But I enjoy it, and it’s something I try to do a few times a year. Winter backpacking is very different, and more challenging, compared to strapping on the pack during other seasons.

For one it’s darn cold, with many trips never getting above freezing, day or night. Two, there’s usually lots of snow on the ground, which means you’re probably wearing snowshoes, and, perhaps, breaking trail too. Three, your pack is heavier because of all the extra warm gear you are carrying, including more food because you need to consume a lot of calories each day. Four, you have to work harder in just about everything you do, from setting up your shelter and trying to stay warm to melting water and attempting to stay hydrated. Five, there’s not a lot of daylight, so you have to stay motivated and keep moving if you want to cover some miles. Lastly, not too many people want to spend 5-6 days in the cold, blowing snow of the northern Rockies in January! But find someone to share the workload if you can!

My recent trip into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness was with a friend, and, perhaps more importantly, an individual with a skill set that I could trust and depend on. Once the weather report showed a high-pressure system moving across the region, Russell and I finalized our plans and set out for the trailhead. We felt confident we could cover 50 miles before the next weather front moved in.

For two and a half days, we trudged across the frozen ridge, one foot after the other, breaking snow almost the entire time. Occasionally, we would hear the call of the raven or the knock of the woodpecker, but for the most part we walked in silence and deep in thought. Accompanying us the whole time was a set of moose tracks, with deer and elk tracks scattered about. It appeared snowshoe hare were in the area too. Blood on the trail indicated that a mountain lion, or another carnivore, might have wounded one of the ungulates.

The daily routine of building the morning fire, boiling water, drying gear, packing up, snowshoeing 10-16 miles, and then searching for a place to dig out the next snow cave was in some ways more mentally challenging than physical. But the white silence of the forest was peaceful, views of the snow-covered mountain peaks were tantalizing, and the cold, crisp air was exhilarating. With each arduous step, the wilderness boundary drew nearer.

You know the feeling. As one travels down the trail, through the forest, around the next bend or over the saddle, your heart pounds like a kid at Christmas. You anxiously await the sign that reads “…Wilderness, “…National Forest.” Yes, you say to yourself. Hope for humanity. Escape from the madness. Refuge for the plants and animals. Nature’s Bill of Rights at last. Leave me here and let me die with my true friends! And down the trail you continue.

Prior to our trip departure, Russell and I learned about the intent of the Idaho Fish & Game Department to land helicopters, and harass and collar elk, in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We were angry, concerned, disappointed, and flabbergasted by the fact that the Forest Service gave the green light to land machines in the Wilderness, up to 120 times over a 3-month period. Of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1 time or 12 times, but 120 times was mind-blowing. Who the hell is running the Forest Service? Didn’t they, along with millions of Americans, just celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act not too long ago? Looks like that was lip service!

And what about the people running the Idaho Fish & Game Department? Why do they still have authority over wildlife management on federal public lands? Why are their intensive and intrusive management plans being permitted in federally designated Wilderness? When is that going to change? Why is the Forest Service continually shining the shoes of the state hook and bullet departments? Who is really administering the Wilderness?

As Russell and I descended in elevation on the third day, the sun shined warmly, the skies stretched a bright blue, and the mighty Salmon River came within view. We peered though the binoculars, and combed the south-facing slopes for herds of elk. Dozens of ungulates lay basking on the hills, while those closer leaped and bound to a more secure place. We also observed whitetail and mule deer (strangely enough together) and lots of wolf tracks. Far off in the distance, we saw what looked like two golden eagles circling a spot on the hill, as if a kill had recently occurred.

Despite seeing a number of horses by the river late that afternoon (why are horses running freely on the national forest in winter, particularly in crucial winter-range habitat?), not a human was in sight, and the frozen riverbank was ours to explore and make home. We rested and dreamily watched small pieces of ice float downstream along the sides of the quiet, rolling river.

Later that evening, after a hot meal, warm fire, and the usual time-to-get hydrated routine, we dozed peacefully under a star-studded sky when suddenly we were awoken by the yips, screams, and howls of coyotes. After shaking our heads no, those are not wolves, we gleefully listened to the songs (and celebrations?) of a dozen coyotes not far from our tarp. They yipped for 3-4 minutes but it felt like a lot longer than that. The sweet music of the Wilderness had finally reached us!

When day broke and our bags were packed, Russell and I contemplated where the Idaho Fish & Game helicopters could be. Were they invading to the south along Big Creek? Were they harassing and stressing dozens of cows and calves to the east? The mere thought of these non-conforming, highly mechanized machines flying and landing wherever they want in the Wilderness made us sick to our stomachs. We both wanted to know how can the uses of helicopters, net-guns, tranquilizers, and GPS-collars be the minimal tool(s) needed to administer the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness? None of it made any sense. Little did we know that wolves were being collared too.

Which leads me to my final thoughts. What good is a National Wilderness Preservation System if the federal officials charged with administering the system, and individual areas, continues to approve projects that are incompatible with the Wilderness Act? Why are the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly rubber-stamping proposals that harm Wilderness? How is the collaring of wildlife in federally designated wilderness representative of a self-willed landscape? Explain to me how helicopters, net-guns, and radio-collars enhance or preserve wilderness character?

This tragedy (“accident”) should serve as a lightning rod to spark a discussion, better yet, a movement, to do two things: create an independent federal department solely charged with stewardship of the wilderness system, and pressure Congress to pass legislation that forbids all state fish and game agencies from conducting any operations inside federally designated Wilderness.

To hell with the Forest Service and the other federal agencies, which continue to trammel the Wilderness and our natural heritage. We cannot keep leaving it to the attorneys to defend the Wilderness Act. We must do something bold. The status quo is badly broken and only getting worse. Ed Abbey is rolling in his grave and still screaming, “The Idea of wilderness needs no defense, just defenders.” This message needs to reach every living room in America.

Brett Haverstick is the Education & Outreach Director for Friends of the Clearwater, a public lands advocacy group based in Moscow, Idaho. He has a B.S. in Parks & Recreation Management from Northern Arizona University and a Master’s degree in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho. He has been a member of Wilderness Watch since 2007. The views expressed are his own.

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ImageOf Wolves and Wilderness
By George Nickas

“One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Right before the holidays last December, an anonymous caller alerted Wilderness Watch that the Forest Service (FS) had approved the use of one of its cabins deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (FC-RONRW) as a base camp for an Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) hunter-trapper. The cabin would support the hired trapper’s effort to exterminate two entire wolf packs in the Wilderness. The wolves, known as the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs, were targeted at the behest of commercial outfitters and recreational hunters who think the wolves are eating too many of “their” elk.

Idaho’s antipathy toward wolves and Wilderness comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked to protect either in Idaho. But the Forest Service’s support and encouragement for the State’s deplorable actions were particularly disappointing. Mind you, these are the same Forest Service Region 4 officials who, only a year or two ago, 
approved IDFG’s request to land helicopters in this same Wilderness to capture and collar every wolf pack, using the justification that understanding the natural behavior of the wolf population was essential to protecting them and preserving the area’s 
wilderness character. Now, somehow, exterminating those same wolves is apparently also critical to preserving the area’s wilderness character. The only consistency here is the FS and IDFG have teamed up to do everything possible to destroy the Wilderness and wildlife they are required to protect.

Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho: Where nine wolves were killed by IDFG’s hired hunter-trapper. Photo: Rex Parker

Wilderness Watch, along with Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Idaho wildlife advocate Ralph Maughan, filed suit in federal court against the Forest Service and IDFG to stop the wolf slaughter. Our suit alleges the FS failed to follow its own required procedures before authorizing IDFG’s hunter-trapper to use a FS cabin as a base for his wolf extermination efforts, and that the program violates the agency’s responsibility under the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve the area’s wilderness character, of which the wolves are an integral part. Trying to limit the number of wolves in Wilderness makes no more sense than limiting the number of ponderosa pine, huckleberry bushes, rocks, or rainfall. An untrammeled Wilderness will set its own balance.

The FS’s anemic defense is that it didn’t authorize the killing, therefore there is no reviewable decision for the court to overturn, and that it was still discussing the program with IDFG (while the trapper was in the field killing the wolves). Unfortunately, the district judge sided with the FS and IDFG, so we filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Rather than defend its action before the higher court, Idaho informed the court that it was pulling the trapper out of the Wilderness and would cease the program for this year. In the meantime, nine wolves are needlessly dead.

We will continue to pursue our challenge because the killing program will undoubtedly return. The Forest Service can’t and shouldn’t hide behind the old canard that “the states manage wildlife.”  Congress has charged the FS with preserving the area’s wilderness character and the Supreme Court has held many times that the agency has the authority to interject itself in wildlife management programs to preserve the people’s interest in these lands. Turning a blind-eye is a shameful response for an agency that used to claim the leadership mantle in wilderness stewardship.

Wilderness Watch expresses its deep appreciation to Tim Preso and his colleagues at Earthjustice for waging a stellar legal battle on our behalf and in defense of these wilderness wolves.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch. George joined Wilderness Watch as our policy coordinator in 1996. Prior to Wilderness Watch, George served 11 years as a natural resource specialist and assistant coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association. George is regularly invited to make presentations at national wilderness conferences, agency training sessions, and other gatherings where wilderness protection is discussed.

by Kevin Proescholdt

ImagePressure has been mounting on the National Park Service to “save” the wolves on Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park and Wilderness.  Wolf numbers on the Lake Superior island have dropped, proponents of manipulation proclaim, and the decades of in-breeding have flattened the population’s genetic diversity.  We should transplant wolves from the mainland to insure that the wolf population survives, they assert, and to provide a “genetic rescue” to freshen up the wolves’ gene pool, much as zookeepers do with certain captive animals.

Wilderness Watch has strongly urged the National Park Service to refrain from that option, and rather let Nature take her course, even if that means the wolf population might become extirpated at some point in the future.  This decision about Isle Royale has national implications for all of the National Parks and all of the National Wilderness Preservation System, so it’s important to get it right at Isle Royale.

I was invited to be one of four panelists at a well-attended forum on this issue held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis this past June, sponsored by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and the National Parks Conservation Association.  The other three panelists were long-time wolf biologist Dr. Dave Mech; Dr. Tim Cochrane, Superintendent of Grand Portage National Monument and an Isle Royale historian; and Dr. Rolf Peterson, the current lead wolf researcher on Isle Royale.  Isle Royale Park Superintendent Phyllis Green also participated in the forum, though not as one of the four panelists.  Of the four of us on the expert panel, only Rolf supported transplanting more wolves to Isle Royale, and he as the current wolf researcher there has more than a tiny conflict of interest in pushing for that option in order to perpetuate his research.

The issue of the Isle Royale wolves is very interesting and quite complex, but I’d like to offer the following reasons to support the non-intervention option and why we should let Isle Royale itself determine the fate of the wolves there.

1. New Wolf Pups Born in 2013.  The National Park Service reported earlier this summer that at least two and maybe three new wolf pups were born on Isle Royale in 2013, after none were born in 2012.  This breeding success reduces the need for a hasty decision, and eliminates one of the main arguments by transplantation promoters that the wolves are not reproducing.  The success with these new pups doesn’t necessarily mean that the wolves are guaranteed long-term survival, but I think it does show that the wolf population is more resilient than the transplantation promoters believe.

2. Exaggerated Symbolism of Wolves.  I’m an Isle Royale visitor and one who loves wolves.  But Isle Royale has immense value and meaning beyond its well-publicized and well-studied wolves.  If wolves become extirpated on the island, Isle Royale itself will live on.  Isle Royale became a National Park before the wolves arrived, and the park will continue even if the iconic wolves die out.  And even if the wolves die out, that dynamic would be part of the evolution of Isle Royale, a likely outcome given what we now know about island biogeography.  If wolves “blink out” there, Isle Royale itself will endure.

3. Science Will Continue.  I certainly appreciate the extensive information and knowledge that have come from the classic predator-prey study on Isle Royale over the past half-century.  As Dave Mech pointed out in the June forum, the validity of that study will end if wolves are transplanted to Isle Royale now.  But other ecological studies will continue on Isle Royale to provide new scientific insights, whether the wolves survive or become extirpated.  Regardless of the outcome of the wolf population, continuing research can shed new light on questions of genetic variability in the context of island biogeography.  If wolves die out, how will the moose population respond?  Will genetic variability in moose also flatten over time?  Will the moose population revert to the boom-and-bust cycles of the 1920s to 1950, or will something else occur?  Will wolves naturally re-colonize Isle Royale on their own, even if the frequency of ice bridges to the Ontario mainland has declined with recent warmer winters?

4. Slippery Slope of Manipulation.  If we humans start transplanting wolves to Isle Royale, we start on a slippery slope that may have no end.  Additional wolves may be needed on the island after the first installment, to “freshen up” the gene pool yet again and again.  With a warming climate, Isle Royale may eventually lose its moose population, too.  Will we then import moose to Isle Royale in perpetuity to keep the imported wolves fed?  And, as Tim Cochrane pointed out in June, should we reintroduce the caribou and lynx that inhabited the island before the wolves and moose and lived there far longer?

5. Wilderness.  Congress has designated about 99% of the 132,018-acre Isle Royale as Wilderness.  The language and background of the 1964 Wilderness Act define Wilderness as “untrammeled” or unmanipulated.  This means that we allow Nature to call the shots, even if that might lead to extirpation of the wolves, either temporarily or permanently.  This is the very essence of Wilderness, that humans must treat Wilderness with humility and restraint and not manipulate Wilderness just because we can or think we know how to do so.  The writings of Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser are full of these deeper values and meanings of Wilderness.

1C216C74-1DD8-B71C-0EA64C8BA1D75EB8The current debate over the potential loss of wolves also indicates the fairly short-sighted approach of most land and wildlife management that is often based on the next 1-10 years, not centuries or millennia.  Because Wilderness is forever, we need to look beyond the short timeframe of human lifetimes and allow these natural processes to play out over much longer time spans, “to make it possible for those areas from the eternity of the past to exist on into the eternity of the future” as Zahniser once eloquently described it.  We should be “Guardians, Not Gardeners” as Zahniser urged us in another of his writings.  We should guard the natural processes on Isle Royale, even if they might lead to wolf extirpation, rather than garden the wilderness to become something more pleasing to our current human preferences and tastes.

The whole debate really comes down to this basic question:

Do we want a manipulated zoo at Isle Royale or a wild Wilderness?

That’s why we continue to urge the National Park Service to not intervene and manipulate the wolf population at Isle Royale by transplanting wolves from the mainland.


 Kevin Proescholdt is conservation director for Wilderness Watch. Kevin guided canoe trips in Minnesota’s million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) for 10 years, and has visited designated and undesignated Wildernesses throughout the U.S. and Canada. He helped pass the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act through Congress, directed the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness for 16 years, and co-authored the 1995 book, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For the eight years prior to joining the Wilderness Watch staff, Kevin directed the national Izaak Walton League’s Wilderness and Public Lands Program. Kevin has been active with Wilderness Watch since 1989, joined the board of directors in 2003, and served two years as president of the board. He has written extensively on the Boundary Waters, and wilderness policy and history.

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