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Wharton: When the wolf is at the door

Published May 28, 2005 12:40 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It takes an idealist to think livestock, hunting, academic and ecology groups could agree about what to do when wolves move into Utah.

The legendary predator creates a visceral reaction.

To ranchers and hunters, that reaction is strongly negative. Most view wolves as a threat to sheep, livestock and big game.

Ecologists and wildlife enthusiasts see the big predator as not only a symbol of wilderness, but, at the top of the food chain, as a necessary component of a functioning ecosystem.

The late Kevin Conway, former director of the Division of Wildlife Resources, created the Utah Wolf Working Group, made up of those on all sides of the issue, in hopes of helping conflicting interests reach consensus.

His was an idealistic wildlife management notion. That the group managed to agree on about 90 percent of the wolf issues is a tribute to Conway, who died in 2004.

There are problems, though.

The powerful hunting lobby Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife dropped out of the working group when its last-minute demands were not met.

At regional Wildlife Advisory Council meetings throughout Utah recently, livestock and farm interests demanded the permission to kill wolves caught harassing sheep and cattle not only on private property but public land. Three of the five members amended the draft plan to give ranchers that right.

Ultimately, the Utah Wildlife Board, which is dominated by hunting interests, will decide the state's wolf management policy.

Bill Burbridge, a retired U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist who played an integral role in the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, represents the Utah Wildlife Federation in the working group. His is the rare perspective that takes into account the needs of hunters and livestock owners with the desire of those who hope to see wolves.

“We're going to have wolves in Utah,” Burbridge said. “Whether we are going to be able to allow them to get established and find a niche where they can survive without causing problems with livestock interests is the first issue.”

The group's compromise would give the Wildlife Board tools to manage wolves in much the same way it manages black bears and cougars, a position often at odds with predator proponents.

“We want to encourage the delisting of the wolf [from the endangered species list] and management by the state of Utah,” Burbridge said. “We would prevent damage to livestock and protect hunters' investments in wildlife, principally big game, as well as the interest of the Ute Indians. We will allow wolves in as long as they behave. That is the situation we are in.”

Utah is different from Yellowstone, where no hunting is allowed and elk populations were exploding and negatively impacting the land. There were also fewer livestock issues, making it a more ideal wolf location.

The Wildlife Board will meet June 8 and 9 to decide whether to adopt the working group's compromise. Permisson granted to ranchers to kill wolves on public lands and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife's opposition to wolves in the state may yet derail the idealistic process Conway began.

wharton@sltrib.com