FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Helicopters could be landing more frequently in central Arizona wilderness areas if a plan to manage bighorn sheep survives a challenge by conservationists.
The Tonto National Forest has proposed allowing wildlife officials up to 450 landings in a handful of wilderness areas over 10 years. The Arizona Department of Game and Fish says it's an effective way to monitor and capture sheep in remote, rugged terrain.
The Wilderness Act prohibits helicopter landings and motorized travel in wilderness areas, but exceptions can be made.
Conservation groups including the Sierra Club and Friends of Wild Animals say this should not be one of them. They argued in a formal objection to the forest's draft decision that the use of helicopters could cause injuries or death to the animals that should be allowed to live without human interference.
"There's no need to continue to manage this species so heavily," said Cyndi Tuell of Friends of Wild Animals. "In wilderness areas, natural processes are supposed to be allowed to take place."
The U.S. Forest Service's Southwestern regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is reviewing the objection. The agency allows helicopters to be used for sheep management in northern New Mexico's Wheeler Peak Wilderness in the Carson National Forest and is considering another request for the Pusch Ridge Wilderness in southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest.
The biggest deciding factors are the welfare of the animals and whether they can be managed with non-motorized methods, said Brian Dykstra, wildlife program leader for the regional Forest Service office. An environmental analysis is done before each capture of sheep, Dykstra said.
The proposal by the Tonto National Forest includes provisions for avoiding bald and gold eagles and their nesting sites, as well as areas protected for the Mexican spotted owl. It limits helicopter landings in general to the weekdays, with most occurring in November. The landings could occur on about 190,000 acres stretching from the east Verde River on the forest's northern boundary to the Superstition Mountains to the south.
Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said wilderness areas have robust herds of sheep that could be transported to new locations or moved to existing populations for diversity. Crews shoot a net from a helicopter that wraps up the sheep, which are blindfolded in transport to keep them calm. The capture takes hours using a helicopter versus days on foot, he said.
"It's the most efficient and most humane way to capture a sheep," he said. "It's much less risky to dry to dart them with a sedative and then try to transport them."