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| Courtesy Mark Whitney The BLM intends to remove several wild horses that congregate near State Route 21 in Beaver County because they pose a threat to traffic safety. These animals are among 200 the agency has authorized to be gathered off state, federal and private lands in Utah this year.
As Western range suffers, should Utah cull wildlife?

While livestock, wild horses, elk and other wildlife compete for forage on drought-stricken range, ranchers ask state to increase hunting permits.

First Published May 19 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 20 2014 08:28 am

Cameron Hallows runs cattle on private land on Monroe Mountain, a mosaic of open meadows and massive aspen stands once home to an elusive bull elk that still holds a world record for its massive antlers.

Elk, deer and other wildlife have shared the rangelands of the West with livestock for well over a century. But as drought continues and forage becomes scarce, ranchers’ frustrations with a surging overpopulation of wild horses are spreading to big game.

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Q & A: Grazing on public lands

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Hallows was one of several ranchers who asked the Utah Wildlife Board earlier this month to encourage more hunting by increasing the number of permits issued.

"It is important we realize, us as livestock people, sportsmen, the Division [of Wildlife Resources] and everybody else, that we need to face the fact that there is a serious situation coming in our direction," Hallows, second vice president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, told the board.

"If we don’t get on the same page for range management," he warned, "it will affect us in a way we don’t want it to."

READ MORE: Check out a Q&A about grazing permits.

Federal land managers acknowledge there are "too many mouths on the range" and say changing public values will likely play a larger role in determining how many, and which, animals roam and graze on public lands in the future.

"If the conditions are good then it is kind of like a large smorgasbord; there is enough food at the table and everybody is happy," said Eric Thacker, range extension specialist for the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

"Then, when we have a drought year, it becomes a big balancing act," he said, "with wildlife owned by the state using habitat owned by the federal agencies and leased to livestock interests."

The National Weather Service announced last week that drought conditions will "persist or intensify" over most of Utah through August.

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‘Strike a balance’ » Like wild horses, elk in Utah exceed population goals.

Wildlife officials estimate there are 81,000 statewide, 1,000 more than the objective in the state elk management plan approved by the wildlife board in March 2010. At that time, the population was estimated at 68,000.

"Over the course of time, particularly in the state of Utah, there has been an evolution of a growing elk herd in our cattle-allotment country," said Terry Padilla, Intermountain Region range director in Ogden for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manage livestock populations on nearly all federal lands in Utah.

"We need to strike a balance between the elk and cattle," Padilla said.

But the state’s management plan, "as we read it with a fine-tooth comb, does not say in there that decisions must incorporate livestock needs," Sterling Brown, with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, told the board at the May 1 meeting.

Still, the Wildlife Resources Code of Utah charges the board with trying to balance wildlife needs with "the social and economic activities of man," Brown noted.

The management plan also says ranges where elk coexist with mule deer and livestock should be closely monitored to prevent overuse. The state wildlife agency is pushing to increase the mule deer population to 350,000 statewide; it’s currently estimated at 333,000. Deer are considered less significant competitors with cattle.

Wildlife numbers need to decrease when ranchers are asked to reduce livestock numbers, Brown argued, as the BLM did recently to protect forage for wild horses.

"You need to significantly increase [hunting] permits to bring down elk numbers to match the trends of livestock," Brown said. "You are getting more than we are, frankly."

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