Moab’s sweeping vistas, roaring whitewater and unique wildlife make it a hotspot for river rafting, helicopter tour, and for conflict over recreation impacts. The Bureau of Land Management’s Moab field office recently nullified their decision and canceled a special recreation permit for a helicopter shuttle, pending further study on impacts to desert bighorn sheep.
“The special recreation permit that we authorized (now just to be clear that was since canceled when we vacated the decision) allowed Pinnacle Helicopters to offer shuttles for river clients up to once a week, up to three clients per trip, and those would have been between the Canyonlands Airport and the Mineral Bottoms backcountry airstrip,” said Lisa Bryant, the BLM's public affairs specialist.
According to Bryant, the special recreation permit was originally approved after a satisfactory environmental assessment. When the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance appealed, citing the importance of the local bighorn sheep herd as one of only two native self-supporting desert bighorn sheep herds in Utah, the BLM vacated their decision and sent the environmental assessment back to the Moab field office for a closer look.
“In the environmental assessment we cited several papers that talked about distances from disturbance of helicopters in which the heart rate of the animals wasn’t increased, or they didn’t see impacts to the animals, and then distances that were closer where they did see those sorts of impacts,” Bryant said. “And there were several papers that we cited and we looked at that pretty carefully. So, I think what we’re going to do is we’re going to take a look and see if there’s additional information or something else that would help inform a decision related to managing the bighorn habitat out there.”
Depending on the best data available to the BLM, they may issue special recreation permits to Pinnacle Helicopters again or continue to withhold them. In the meantime, sightseeing flights are still allowed over the area as the BLM does not control the airspace.