Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Don Peay of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, right, speaks before the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. Peay is a founder of Big Game Forever, an anti-wolf advocacy group, who is seeking $300,000 from the Legislature.
Audit launched into anti-wolf funding
Politics » Legislators OK audit of state payments to Big Game Forever.
First Published Jul 08 2013 05:01 pm • Last Updated Jul 09 2013 10:46 am

Legislative leaders on Monday ordered an audit to examine how a political-action organization has spent Utah taxpayers’ money in an ongoing effort to wrest control of wolf management from federal hands.

Big Game Forever, a Utah-based nonprofit that spun off Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife in 2010, has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money during the past four years to evict the gray wolf from the endangered species list. But the group’s founders Don Peay and Ryan Benson have not disclosed where the money goes in their reports to the Legislature and to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

State auditors have already made informal inquiries into how the group spent a $300,000 appropriation for fiscal year 2013. But because Big Game Forever "commingles" its funds from multiple sources, it might not be possible to determine exactly what Utah taxpayers’ money bought, according to Legislative Auditor General John Schaff.

"How do I know that receipt is for state money versus funds coming from other sources?" Schaff told the legislative audit subcommittee Monday. "The problem is this is a private company. We have authority to look at state funding. We don’t have authority to look at funding from other sources."

This did not sit well with Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who requested the audit.

"I would like to see accountability on the half million that has been spent. I would like to see where that money went and for what purposes," Davis said.

Meanwhile, Big Game Forever is poised to receive a second $300,000 state appropriation for fiscal year 2014. Davis argued that DWR, which manages the contract with Big Game Forever, should withhold the money pending the release of the audit.

The audit subcommittee, however, lacks the authority to do that, but some lawmakers may ask DWR to sit on the money.

The panel did ask Schaff to find out what other states, if any, are funding Big Game Forever, how much they contribute and to explore how it will spend the next $300,000.

During the legislative session, Peay told lawmakers he was going to use the money to block federal attempts to "introduce" Mexican gray wolves into southern Utah, even though there is scant evidence such a plan is afoot.

story continues below
story continues below

Schaff said he intends to also examine how Big Game Forever spent two earlier $100,000 DWR grants in pursuit of "legal and legislative solutions to return management for gray wolves to the state of Utah." The grants — from state general-fund monies, not from fees on sportsmen as previously indicated — required the group to keep accounting records "for state review if requested."

A DWR official said the agency had never requested to review those records.

Big Game Forever executive Benson, a Salt Lake City lawyer, has not responded to several requests for comment.

Last week, he submitted a 120-page report to DWR summarizing Big Game Forever’s "accomplishments" arising from the $300,000, but it shed little light on its spending other than to attribute various amounts in five broad categories. It did say the group used the appropriation to obtain "matching dollars," but it provided no numbers.

"Normally you report how much and where it came from," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, another critic of the appropriation. "Maybe I’m missing something. I have worked for non-profits my whole life. You get paid as you submit expenses or as you complete the work."

One of the appropriation’s chief backers, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, welcomed the audit.

"I think they will find the money was spent very well," he said.

The feds have long signalled an intent to delist the gray wolf from federal protection across the nation, so critics like Davis wonder why Utah should divert money to a politically connected special-interest group to fight a battle that appears won.

The Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed delisting last month, paving the way for states to manage wolf populations.

Wolves were exterminated from Utah by 1930, but they are expected to return should the populations in the Northern Rockies continue to expand into their historic range to the south.

Next Page >

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.