Utah wolves in line to lose protected status
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unshackled the western Great Lakes population of the gray wolf from the endangered species list to great acclaim on Monday.
But a decision by the federal agency to also move ahead with a proposal to take the northern Rocky Mountain version of Canis lupus off of the list - with a portion of northern Utah included as part of its recovery zone - is meeting with resistance.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett announced that the populations of both groups have exceeded federal recovery goals, with the western Great Lakes population now nearing 4,000 wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and the northern Rockies population in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho at over 1,200.
"Today, with this action, we recognize the comeback of the gray wolf," Scarlett said, adding, "This is a major success story."
Peggy Struhsacker, the National Wildlife Federation's wolf recovery team manager, calls the species' comeback in the Great Lakes region "one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the annals of wildlife conservation."
However, she calls the plan to delist the wolf in the Rockies "premature," citing the relatively small amount of habitat on which wolves currently exist.
In Utah they don't technically exist at all - but the Beehive State has nonetheless been enlisted in the recovery effort.
In addition to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, portions of eastern Washington and Oregon, and north-central Utah, were designated by the Fish and Wildlife Service as "distinct" population areas. These are places where wolves - even if they don't currently exist - are expected to wander into and eventually start breeding.
The Utah recovery area covers a swath of the state that includes Box Elder, Rich, Cache, Weber and Morgan counties, with all of the designated territory located east of Interstate 15 and north of I-80.
The state's first confirmed sighting of a wolf in over 70 years occurred in November of 2002 when a Canis lupus was trapped outside of Morgan and later returned to its home pack in Yellowstone National Park. Last year, a second wolf was trapped - and found dead - north of Tremonton.
Though not required to do so, Division of Wildlife Resources officials crafted a wolf management plan for Utah in 2005 that assumed the state would assume management duties once two breeding pairs - or about two dozen wolves - were established.
Kevin Bunnell, the division's mammals program coordinator, said Monday that officials will now huddle to assess what the inclusion of Utah into the wolf's recovery zone will entail.
"We weren't sure if they were going to include it or not, but they did and we're not sure where that puts us," Bunnell said. "Does that mean we implement our plan in that corner of the state? Our position has been that all of Utah should be included when delisting occurs."
The state's largest hunting organization welcomed Monday's announcement.
"Wolves have clearly recovered. They're starting to have an adverse impact on elk and moose populations," said Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. "The time has come to manage wolves just like we do cougars and bears and everything else."
Environmental groups have opposed the Utah plan, accusing it of being too rancher-friendly.
"It puts too much management power in the hands of private citizens," said Kirk Robinson, the director of Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Resources.
But the bigger question, they say, is what Utah is even doing on the Fish and Wildlife Service's map.
"There's no scientific or biological justification for delisting the wolf in the part of the northern Rockies when they're not here," said wildlife biologist Allison Jones, a member of the Utah Wolf Forum.
In fact, conservation groups call the whole delisting proposal for the northern Rockies a bad idea.
"The government is ready to abandon the fate of wolves to institutions that believe it is still 1870," said Rob Edward, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Carnivore Restoration for Sinapu.
Wolf management plans from Idaho and Montana have been accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But the agency has yet to accept Wyoming's plan - which calls for the wolf to have predator status, and be shot on sight, outside Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding ecosystem. The agency has yet to accept the Wyoming proposal, spawning a lawsuit from the state.