Arizona must change rules allowing helicopters near bighorns

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Forest officials in central Arizona have been ordered to revise a proposal that would allow state wildlife officials to land helicopters in wilderness areas to manage bighorn sheep.

Conservationists on Wednesday applauded the response to an objection they filed over the Tonto National Forest proposal. They say it violates the Wilderness Act, which generally prohibits helicopter landings and motorized travel in wilderness areas.

The Tonto forest was on track to let the Arizona Department of Game and Fish make up to 450 helicopter landings in a handful of wilderness areas over 10 years. State wildlife officials have said it's an effective way of monitoring and capturing sheep in remote, rugged terrain.

Now, the proposal must be reworked to consider managing the sheep outside wilderness areas before proposing action within them, Southwest regional forester Calvin Joyner said.

He said the Tonto forest also must take another look at the minimum number of sheep that have to be collared to meet research and monitoring needs, and ensure all decisions are in line with agency's responsibilities under the Wilderness Act.

Tonto forest spokeswoman Carrie Templin said no time frame has been set for the revisions.

State Game and Fish spokesman Jim Paxon said the agency wanted 450 landings over 10 years as a worst-case scenario and expects fewer actual landings. He said managing sheep cannot be done entirely outside wilderness areas, where 60 percent of the most robust populations live.

The U.S. Forest Service allows helicopters to land in northern New Mexico's Wheeler Peak Wilderness to manage sheep. The agency is considering a request from Arizona wildlife officials to do the same in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness northeast of Tucson.

Wildlife officials planned to release bighorn sheep in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness this fall that will be drawn from wilderness areas of the Tonto National Forest, Paxon said, but would have to change course if the revisions to the Tonto proposal aren't finalized before then.

"Those operations are critical to use," he said. "We want to get the best, healthiest, most vigorous sheep potential for transplants."

Conservationists hope forest officials will deny access to wilderness areas with helicopters.

"They did not make the case for the need for this project," said Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club. "Basically the regional forester said, `You have ignored your responsibilities under the Wilderness Act. Go back, do it right, look at alternatives.'"