Wolf - Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Released from his cage at the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness on Jan. 14, 1995, Moon Star Shadow was the first Canada wolf reintroduced in Idaho.

BOISE (AP) | The U.S. Forest Service has notified a conservation group that Idaho officials won't use a hired hunter to kill wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness this winter.

Earthjustice in a statement says it received the notification Wednesday from the federal agency as required by the settlement of a federal lawsuit. The letter from Forest Service officials to Earthjustice says the Idaho Department of Fish and Game notified the federal agency of its decision on Friday.

"We are relieved that it will be managed as a wild place with natural wildlife populations, rather than an elk farm, for at least this coming winter," Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said in a statement.

Fish and Game's wildlife bureau chief, Jeff Gould, said the agency is conducting a statewide study involving 500 radio-collared elk and had, for now, shifted attention away from wolves in the wilderness. "At this point, our focus is more on monitoring elk than it is from removing wolves from certain parts of the Frank Church," he said.

Sport hunting and trapping, he noted, is still allowed. However, the River of No Return is so remote and rugged that few hunters have the skills needed to succeed in the area in winter.

On behalf of four environmental groups, Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in January 2014. The lawsuit asked a judge to stop a state-hired hunter from using the U.S. Forest Service's backcountry airstrips to reach and kill wolves in the wilderness. A federal judge rejected their request for a temporary restraining order, but state officials pulled the hunter out of the region after he killed nine wolves.

Earthjustice later withdrew the lawsuit in an agreement that required Idaho officials announce by early August whether a state-hired hunter would be used to kill wolves in the wilderness.

Earthjustice is representing Idaho wilderness advocate Ralph Maughan, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Wilderness Watch, and Center for Biological Diversity in the lawsuit.

Wildlife in Idaho is managed by the state, but the River of No Return is overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

State officials opted to not send a state hunter into the wilderness last winter either. In making that declaration, Gould said the state agency intended to improve the Forest Service's understating of how the state applies wilderness considerations to its decisions, and how the state believes that reducing the wolf population will help mitigate the negative impact wolves have on other wildlife.

On Wednesday, Gould said elk studies so far are showing that elk in backcountry areas are declining. But he added that the studies are still being conducted and he didn't want to make any presumptions.

"This is the way we're going to monitor our elk herds for the next 10 years," he said. "We're starting to find out some very good information. We hope to work with the Forest Service to maintain healthy elk herds and the tradition of hunting."

Preso said his group will continue to monitor the state's activities in the wilderness. "We intend to remain vigilant that, going forward from this winter, the Frank Church wilderness is protected," he said.

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