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Utah sends $500K more to unexplained wolf delisting efforts

First Published      Last Updated Apr 06 2016 08:55 pm

Endangered species » Utah lawmakers direct the funds to an anti-wolf lobbyist, with no questions asked.

Lawmakers didn't discuss wolves' status as a protected species during the 2015 Legislature — not until the very end.

Two hours before the final gavel dropped, Spanish Fork Republican Rep. Mike McKell rose to defend giving activists $500,000 to pressure federal officials to return wolf management to the states.

McKell's proposed line item had not been discussed publicly during the normal state budgeting process, even though it has been the source of past controversy.

"This is a big deal, a big deal for ranchers. It's a big deal for wildlife in this state," McKell proclaimed on the House floor after another lawmaker suggested spending the money on air quality research instead.

"I'm not ashamed of this," he added. "I don't want the wolf in Utah. We can't afford to have the wolf in Utah."

McKell believes wolf packs are wiping out elk in Idaho's Panhandle. The same can't happen in Utah, he says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed delisting the gray wolf nationwide from the Endangered Species Act in 2013. Removing the wolf from the protected list would pass management of the predators on to the states, neatly aligning with Utah leaders' policy goals.

But federal wildlife managers now are rethinking the wisdom of stripping protections from an apex predator that was once hunted, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction. The wolf has yet to recover on "a significant portion of its range," as required under the law to warrant a delisting.

No packs have been established in Utah and McKell, the House chairman of the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, wants to keep it that way by lobbying for congressional intervention.

His last-minute appropriation will renew a contract with Ryan Benson, a lawyer affiliated with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and its politically connected founder, Don Peay.

Since 2010, Utah has directed $800,000 to Big Game Forever, an anti-predator advocacy outfit founded by Benson and Peay, even though the group has never explained how it has spent the money.

The group's opaque accounting drew a rebuke from the legislative auditor in October of 2013, who was frustrated there was no way to determine if the money was being put to its designated purpose.

A year later, the Utah Department of Natural Resources awarded Benson a $2 million contract to thwart an endangered species listing for greater sage grouse. A former patent lawyer and an avid big game hunter, Benson had minimal prior experience with the bird species.

McKell said his goal with the wolf appropriation is to get Utah covered in proposed federal legislation ordering the secretary of the Interior to delist wolves in Wyoming and the Western Great Lakes region.

"It's imperative to ensure that the state of Utah is in this fight," McKell said. "This funding is incredibly important."

Wildlife conservation groups describe Utah's effort as incredibly wasteful, and mired in "residual hatred of predators" that excludes any appreciation of the ecological benefits they provide as a keystone species.

"Congress is the least appropriate organization to get involved with these biological decisions. Where is their expertise?" said Don Barry, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "Whether a species is heading toward extinction is a scientific calculation. It is not a political one."

The wildlife service already has delisted wolves for the Great Lakes and Wyoming, but federal judges have ruled these changes are premature under suits filed by Defenders and other groups. Those rulings prompted Wisconsin Congressman Reid Ribble, a Republican, to introduce HR884, directing the Interior to finalize the delisting rules.

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