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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.

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At a break, ranchers talked about the irony of the board’s approval of a letter chiding the BLM for not reducing wild horse herds to the federal agency’s population goals — while elk climb above the state’s goals.

"If our elk get 200 to 300 over objective, we catch heat, and horses are so far over objective," board member John Bair said during board discussions. "If elk and deer ever got that high, we would never come out in public."

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‘This reaches beyond one lifestyle’ » Other big game animals also compete with livestock in Utah, and wildlife numbers are considered when the Forest Service and the BLM decide allotments for cattle grazing on public lands, Padilla said.

Competition between livestock and wildlife is magnified by drought and accentuated in certain areas — including Monroe Mountain, he said.

"On that range one of the key habitat species is aspen. In fact, one of the oldest aspen clones in the world," Padilla said. "We have reached a threshold of high grazing with all those aspen suckers and it is impeding aspen management objectives" to increase the number of trees.

Cattle can be controlled through regulating grazing, but elk are not easily rounded up and moved to greener pastures.

"Any number of elk tags can be issued, but these are migratory elk and they adapt to [hunting] pressure," Padilla said.

Wildlife board members make the same point.

Federal officials "just say, ‘Hey, take X number of animals or a percent off,’ but it is not that easy with wildlife," member Calvin Crandall said at the May meeting.

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"I’m not saying we do what they used to do to jackrabbits — surround them and hit them with bats," he said. "But if we don’t do something in the long run, wildlife will suffer."

Hunting restrictions help develop trophy animals, which in turn spur interest in hunting and raise funds for the state wildlife agency through licenses and permits.

Troy Justensen, vice president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, reminded the board that sportsmen have helped improve forage across the state, benefiting both wildlife and livestock.

"This reaches beyond one lifestyle. It is about all men, not just cattlemen," Justensen said. "If there are things we can do to benefit them, I’m for them, but we have done our part to try and raise the forage and support the animals we love to chase and admire."

‘Shifting values’ in the new West » The wildlife board increased hunting permits on the most drought-stricken hunting unit in southwestern Utah, and agreed to watch the range as summer progresses and increase elk tags in trouble areas.

The Forest Service is preparing to evaluate range in the state, and will hold public meetings to discuss how to cope with "too many mouths on the range," Padilla said.

He expects to hear from a growing number of people not directly connected to either livestock or hunting.

"There is a shifting balance in public values in the new West," Padilla said. "Our resource management is trying to strike a balance for all interests."

To find the best solutions, Thacker suggests a model that cattle interests are already familiar with: the sage grouse local working groups spread across the Great Basin.

The groups examine the realities of sage grouse conservation and possible impacts on rural communities. The key, Thacker said, is for interest groups to focus on one goal.

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