A Rare Good Move for Grizzlies

On March 12, Ashton/Island Park District Ranger Liz Davy withdrew the possibility of a permit to allow helicopter skiing on the continental divide in the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho side of this magnificent mountain range in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Ranger Davy wrote: “Research indicates use of helicopters has significant negative impacts to denning grizzly bears, a threatened species. Wildlife biologists have documented occupied grizzly bear dens in the vicinity of the proposed use. Based on a preliminary review of this project, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agreed with Caribou-Targhee determination of an adverse effect to denning grizzly bears as well as an adverse effect to grizzlies emerging from their dens. Helicopter use would likely cause injury to denning females and possible mortality of cubs of the year. Some of the areas proposed for skiing and landing a helicopter are located within known avalanche prone areas creating a risk to public health and safety. This use as demonstrated by the applicant can be accommodated on lands other than National Forest System lands.”

After the Forest Service first indicated that they were going to grant the permit for helicopter skiing, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Native Ecosystem Council jumped into action and submitted comments to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest pointing out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own maps showed the area is occupied grizzly bear habitat.

Besides fleeing in terror when low-flying aircraft are in the area, it has been documented in Canada that grizzly bears and their cubs were buried alive and killed in their dens when a helicopter skiing company drops bombs on the snow to set off avalanches to protect their skiers.

The Centennial Mountains are in a significant wildlife corridor that connects the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Rockies to the Uinta Wilderness and Southern Rockies and would be formally designated as a wildlife corridor in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act which was just reintroduced in Congress by Congresswoman Maloney, and 40 cosponsors including AOC and Raul Grijalva, Chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee.

We told the Forest Service that they must provide a map and analysis of the Corridor addressing habitat fragmentation and the presence of core habitat and habitat connectivity for special status species in the project area including grizzly bear, Canada lynx, and wolverine home ranges. We also explained to the Forest Service that they had to formally consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the impact of the project on these special status species and when they did, the Forest Service agreed with our position. We are happy the District Ranger listened to our concerns and pulled the permit allowing the helicopters to negatively impact grizzly bears in this important wildlife corridor.

We also asked the Forest Service to specify how the helicopter ski company would deal with the safety issue of snowmobilers in the areas in which they want to operate. Helicopters in and of themselves are capable of triggering avalanches. The project area is located within known avalanche prone areas creating a risk to public health and safety while only benefiting the private helicopter ski company.

The helicopter skiing would have also adversely affect lynx habitat in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Lynx habitat is increasingly fragmented and deteriorated by human activities while the agencies charged with managing this region fail to address or correct any aspect of these issues while continuing to approve projects that increase the fragmentation, and habitat deterioration, and pollution. We are thrilled to see this permit pulled but it certainly didn’t hurt that we have a strong track record of following up our comments with a lawsuit when the Forest Service breaks the law.