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AZGFD to Manage Bighorn Sheep by Helicopter in Tonto NF Wilderness Areas

Arizona Game and Fish Department

The Arizona Game and Fish Department may soon have the ability to land helicopters in wilderness areas within the Tonto National Forest. The aim is to manage populations of bighorn sheep. But, as Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, several conservation groups say the move will violate federal law.

The Sierra Club, Friends of Wild Animals and other organizations say the use of such mechanized vehicles in wilderness areas would disregard the federal Wilderness Act. They also say the helicopter landings would violate the Endangered Species Act by putting animals like the Mexican spotted owl and a species of desert tortoise in peril.

Sandy Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

“Wilderness areas are supposed to be places that are largely untrammeled by man. If you start allowing this type of activity in wilderness, what’s next? I think it is a bad precedent,” Bahr says.

But officials with the Tonto National Forest, who would authorize the helicopter use in five separate locations, found the landings would have little or no impact on wilderness or wildlife.

Dustin Darveau is a game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He says the proposed 10-year program is necessary to return bighorn sheep to many of their native ranges in the state.

“The interpretation of the Wilderness Act is definitely up for debate because the Wilderness Act does allow for certain needs. Having that flexibility available to us allows us to better manage the species,” Darveau says.

The U.S. Forest Service will evaluate objections to the plan and then issue a final decision later this winter. 

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