Anti-wolf group goes to court to keep Utahns from knowing how it spends tax money

Since 2012, the Utah Legislature has steered $5.1 million to a nonprofit group called Big Game Forever to advocate for eliminating federal protections for the gray wolf and returning management of the predator to states.

Now, the organization has run to court in a last-ditch move to block the public from learning how these tax dollars were spent, arguing that divulging such information would give away trade secrets, akin to Colonel Sanders having to share the recipe for his famous fried chicken.

“The disclosure of the names of BGF’s employees/subcontractors would allow for competitors to recruit from BGF’s workforce and bid against BGF for other lobbying work nationwide,” the group’s lawyers wrote in the lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.

That line of reasoning had failed to sway Utah’s State Records Committee, which in March ordered the Utah Department of Natural Resources to hand over the information to an independent Salt Lake City journalist.

For months, Eric S. Peterson, who heads The Utah Investigative Journalism Project and has written pieces for The Salt Lake Tribune, has been seeking the names of Big Game Forever’s subcontractors from the Department of Natural Resources, which has rejected Peterson’s requests made under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

The department has long administered anti-wolf advocacy contracts with Big Game Forever and its principal, Ryan Benson, a Utah lawyer associated with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Benson’s firm Stag Consulting has received $7 million in state contracts since 2014, according to Utah’s public funding transparency website. Those contracts were awarded to press federal wildlife managers to embrace Utah’s state conservation plan for the greater sage grouse, another sensitive wildlife species that has so far not been listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Through the years, Benson has captured numerous advocacy contracts from the state on wildlife issues, but his expenditure reports have failed to disclose how the money was spent, earning the ire of some lawmakers and a rebuke from legislative auditors who insisted on greater transparency.

Thus, BGF’s expenditure reports to Utah in 2018 and 2019 included the names of nine contractors Benson used on the wolf-delisting campaign, along with the hours they worked, but not the amounts they were paid.

During those years, the reports state, the group spent $1.6 million on subcontractors for a total of 8,817 hours of work, mostly on “public outreach.”

Peterson obtained the reports through a public records request, but the Department of Natural Resources blacked out the subcontractors’ names, invoking exemptions to the public records law that protect trade secrets.

“The public deserves to know how this contract is being implemented and to know who is being tasked with seeing it through,” Peterson wrote in his petition to the State Record Committee. “When public funds are placed secretly into the hands of third parties, it does not instill public confidence in the stated mission.”

Playing ‘chicken'?

In response, Big Game Forever alleged the disclosure would result in “competitive injury” to Big Game Forever, whose lawyers likened the undisclosed list to KFC’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices.

“This list is not generally known to others, including other nonprofits similar to Big Game Forever that compete with Big Game Forever for contracts,” Benson’s lawyers wrote to the committee. “While it might be generally known by the public, or may be able to be discerned that some particular ingredients are in the recipe, the list of all ingredients, the relative amounts, how they are processed and when applied, are the secret elements that allow the owner of the recipe to continue the competitive advantage in the market that the owner worked for in creating and keeping secret the recipe.”

The State Record Committee rejected that reasoning, concluding the subcontractors’ identities did not qualify as trade secrets and that the public had a right to know who was getting this money.

Big Game Forever’s suit now insists that disclosure would put its unnamed employees and subcontractors at risk “because the work that BGF does — advocating in the wildlife sector — is work that is controversial and BGF is the target of continued threats from eco-terrorists and animal rights groups.”

Publicly identifying these employees and businesses would discourage people from working for BGF, the suit contends, thus depriving it of the workforce it needs to meet its obligations under its state contracts.

Despite Utah’s money and Big Game Forever’s efforts, the gray wolf still enjoys federal protection throughout its historic range in the United States, except in the Greater Yellowstone region, which includes a piece of northern Utah. Under a successful, but controversial, reintroduction program, wolf numbers are strong in the area where Montana, Idaho and Wyoming meet.

Politics and predators

In its advocacy materials, Big Game Forever contends that “out of control” wolf populations are decimating big game herds in Idaho and that entrusting management to states is essential to sparing Utah’s moose and elk from a similar fate.

That assessment is not generally supported by science, said Michael Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity’s expert on the gray wolf.

“That’s a claptrap. Idaho has larger numbers of elk now than before the [1995 wolf] reintroduction,” Robinson said. “It’s astounding that they can still claim that.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposal to delist the gray wolf in March 2019, but, more than a year after the public comment period ended, a decision has yet to be released. Even if the service decides to delist the gray wolf, BGF’s annual reports concede such a decision would face a high chance reversal. That would be especially true if President Donald Trump is not reelected this fall.

The report says the best hope for a lasting solution is congressional legislation transferring management of wolves from the feds to the states. The Republican-led U.S. House passed such a bill, dubbed the Manage Our Wolves Act, in November 2018, shortly before the Democratic takeover of that body.

Given the direction of the nation’s political winds, it is unlikely wolf delisting will get another shot at congressional approval anytime soon. But there will be consultants and lobbyists eager to take Utah’s money to keep the fight alive, especially if wolf reintroduction occurs next door.

Colorado voters will weigh in on a November ballot measure calling for the reestablishment of wolf packs in the Centennial State by 2023. Recent polling suggests Initiative 107 enjoys wide support among Colorado voters, crossing political and regional lines, making passage likely.

And where is Colorado’s best wolf habitat? According to Robinson, unmolested wolves could thrive in that state’s western reaches, not far from Utah.