Utah is again lawyering up to fight federal protection of wolves, which are not currently known to inhabit the Beehive State.
On Monday, state officials filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that are trying to reverse a decision by the Donald Trump administration delisting the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.
The state has long claimed the wolf’s return to its native range in Utah would imperil the state’s livestock industry. Now alleging wolves would cause “irreparable harm” to wildlife, the Utah Attorney General’s Office asked U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White to let Utah help defend the Interior Department’s decision last year that the gray wolf is no longer under threat of extinction. That controversial decision handed management of the predator to the states.
The WildEarth Guardians and other groups filed suit in White’s Oakland, Calif., court, arguing the wolf’s recovery is limited to a few pockets and state management, particularly in Utah, poses a threat to the species’ survival. The suit highlights Utah’s wolf management philosophy, arguing its real aim isn’t management but preventing any meaningful presence of wolves.
Wolves once roamed most of North America, but were all but eliminated from the lower 48 states by the early 20th century. Western and Upper Midwest states offer the most appropriate habitat for wolf recovery.
Also this week a coalition of 70 environmental and wildlife groups, including those that filed the lawsuit, filed a petition with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, formally asking the agency to re-instate federal protections for the gray wolf throughout the West.
“Wolves remain completely absent from suitable habitats or perilously close to extinction in many western states, and the handful of states surrounding Yellowstone National Park are now driving the larger populations toward extinction — endangered species listing — by ramping up wolf killing and stripping away hunting and trapping regulations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming,” said wildlife biologist Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
Over the past decade, Utah lawmakers funneled hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to outside lobbyists to pressure Congress and federal agencies to strip the wolf of protection. That investment finally bore fruit during the waning months of the Trump administration when the U.S. Fish and Wild Service issued a rule delisting the wolf.
Meanwhile, Colorado voters passed an initiative last November instructing that state’s wildlife agency to bring wolves back to the western, less urban portion of the state. A pack has already been established without human help in northwest Colorado.
Since 2002, there have been just 15 to 20 confirmed sightings of wolves in Utah, according to Utah’s court filing. Still no breeding pair has been documented in nearly a century. The Utah filing, however, said Colorado’s plan to establish self-sustaining wolf packs will inevitably result in wolf incursions into Utah’s eastern counties.
“History has shown the need for active management of gray wolf populations, as well as the negative impacts on big game populations in the absence of such management,” the filing states. “Leaving Utah without a means to manage the further dispersal of gray wolves into Utah will create conflict between livestock and grazing operators, due to shared habitat.”
The National Rifle Association has already been allowed to intervene in the suit, based on its argument that reversing the delisting decision would inhibit its members’ ability to hunt wolves. Other groups seeking to intervene on the anti-wolf side are the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, American Farm Bureau and the American Sheep Industry Association.
Utah alleges wolves’ appetite for big game poses a financial threat to the state. Predicting that deer and elk numbers would plummet, officials claim revenues associated with hunting licenses and outfitting would drop should “unmanaged” wolf packs be allowed to roam Utah.
“These guiding and outfitting services provide jobs and income to Utah families,” the Utah filing said. “Continued listing of gray wolves as an endangered species as their population expands into Utah will only result in direct hardship for Utah citizens involved in the outdoor industry.”
Many wildlife biologists reject claims that rebounding wolf numbers have doomed big game herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, states that now allow aggressive hunting of wolves.
The state also claimed wolves would cost agricultural producers dearly by pushing ungulates into grazing areas.
“As a result, livestock using those areas face decreased access to grazable areas, which in turn causes an increased cost for agricultural producers, who must provide supplemental feed for livestock that traditionally have relied on open range resources to fulfill their alimentary needs,” the filing claimed.