Lawmakers spend $500,000 to recruit out-of-state hunters for Utah’s war on wolves

Hunter Nation, based in Kansas, to get $500,000 to rally Midwestern hunters to the delisting cause.

FILE - This July 16, 2004, file photo, shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Wisconsin wildlife officials opened an abbreviated wolf season Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, complying with a court order to start the hunt immediately rather than wait until November. The hunt will run through Sunday, Feb. 28 across six management zones. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella, File)

Before you roll your eyes at the specter of the Utah Legislature dolling out more money to campaign against wolves, Keith Mark wants you to give him a chance.

The founder and president of the Kansas-based Hunter Nation Inc. will soon be spending $500,000 of Utah taxpayer money to educate Midwestern hunters on the alleged evils of protecting the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“There’s some people that believe that if you just do nothing, that [wild] animals somehow miraculously manage themselves,” Mark, who describes himself as a lifelong Democrat, said in a recent phone interview. “There’s nothing magical about how wolves manage themselves. They kill and they breed. And if we don’t manage them, they’re going to kill more, continue to breed and then there will be no elk, no moose, no bighorn [sheep].”

Mark said his group will use Utah’s money to rally hunters in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other Midwestern states where wolves still roam wild to get more politically engaged, especially on the issue of “predator management.” The ultimate goal is to convince Congress to, yet again, pass legislation delisting wolves nationwide.

Thanks to the successful wolf reintroduction in the Yellowstone region, the gray wolf is no longer listed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where they can be lawfully hunted.

“We want to motivate our hunters to make sure they pass the word around, and when there’s policymakers that show up to a high school gymnasium for a public hearing on some topic that impacts hunting, like predator management in this wolf issue, we’re going to make sure our hunters show up wearing their blaze orange and their camo hat, so the policymakers know that hunters are concerned,” Mark said.

The $500,000 appropriation is just the most recent gift the Legislature has handed to anti-wolf activists going back at least a decade, totaling $5.1 million. These handouts have long annoyed wildlife advocates who see them as a waste of resources better spent figuring out how to live in harmony with wolves, a native predator that was eradicated a century ago.

“It’s extremely unethical to spread false information like that and to take money from the rest of the citizens. Wildlife belongs to all of us. It doesn’t belong to these hunter groups exclusively,” said Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. “For the Legislature to capitulate to their demands, that’s just a scandal.”

Appearing before a legislative committee on behalf of Hunter Nation last month was none other than conservative political activist Don Peay, Utah’s leading advocate for big game hunting.

Peay cofounded the two Utah groups that received previous anti-wolf appropriations, first to Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife, then later to a spinoff political outfit called Big Game Forever (BGF). Over these years, the gray wolf has teeter-tottered on and off the endangered list, depending on which party was in control of the levers of power.

While the wolf enjoyed protected status four years ago, the Legislature last awarded BGF $2 million to fund its lobbying efforts. Since then, the Trump administration removed wolves from the endangered list, which for a while allowed Utah to “manage” wolves within its borders. During this period no wolves took up residence in Utah, but a federal judge in California last year ordered the predator back under federal protection.

The court’s action upset many in Utah who fear the state will now have to sit back and watch wolves “proliferate” across the Beehive State, leaving a bloody trail of mangled elk and cow carcasses in their wake.

Further inflaming Utah’s anti-wolf activists is Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan, which is to be implemented at the end of the year and is expected to result in wolves roaming into Utah.

“Today, wolves are ‘endangered’ in Utah. We can’t touch them, we can’t manage them. They can come in and kill everything,” Peay told lawmakers. “The State of Colorado is putting 50 to 100 wolves on our eastern border in December.”

Peay’s portrayal of the Colorado plan was at best a distortion. For example, Colorado isn’t proposing to release a single wolf on its border with Utah. Rather its reintroduction plan calls for releasing 30 to 50 wolves on Colorado’s West Slope, no closer than 50 miles to a border with any neighboring state.

Some of these wolves would doubtlessly disperse west and reach Utah at some point.

But Colorado is proposing to have these introduced wolves designated a “nonessential experimental” population under the ESA, which would allow for greater latitude in how they would be managed, likely allowing for lethal removal in some cases.

At an interim hearing in October, Peay gave his familiar doomsday scenario, pointing to Idaho’s “decimated” big game herds to describe the fate of Utah if wolves remain under federal protection. Each wolf kills 25 elks a year, he claimed to make his case that “unmanaged” wolves would quickly eliminate elk from Utah’s landscape.

Robinson said this claim is “demonstrably false.” Wolves certainly kill big game, which they co-evolved with for thousands of years, but no peer-reviewed science has found wolves destroy ungulate herds. In reality, Robinson said, wolves once occupied an important role in the West’s ecosystems, which could benefit from their return.

“They exert a top-down influence that affects the structure and functioning of the ecosystem,” he said. “They increase biodiversity And they balance out the numbers of other [predator] species.”

Take coyotes, which have proliferated across the West with the extirpation of larger predators. Coyote numbers have declined with the return of wolves to the Northern Rockies.

“As a consequence, there is more beaver, and as a consequence of more beaver, more water retention, more wet areas, more amphibians, more Neotropical songbirds, more fish,” Robinson said. “Wolves are better for the ecology as a whole. Furthermore, they make ungulate herds healthier because they take almost exclusively animals that will not contribute to reproduction in the future, for one reason or another.”

Peay’s latest remedy is to recruit Midwestern hunters to support congressional action delisting wolves. Such legislation has been introduced by Wisconsin Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D) and Ron Johnson (R), but the bill targets only the upper Midwestern states for delisting.

“If we can convince the Wisconsin hunters to ask [Baldwin] it’s all the West or no deal, then she can help put Utah on that,” Peay said. “This money will help us go into Wisconsin to get the hunters to make sure that their senators know that Utah’s gotta be a part of the deal.”

Hunter Nation is registered as a 501(c)4 nonprofit, which is allowed to engage in political activity.

According to Hunter Nation’s most recently available financial disclosure, Peay was a director of the group in 2019 serving as its only compensated officer, receiving nearly $80,000 that year. Other officers include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Utah investment firm executive Craig Simpson. Rock legend Ted Nugent is among its most visible members.

“In 2019, Hunter Nation continued to protect the rights of hunters and promoted policies rooted in the ideas of God, family, country and the outdoor lifestyle,” the disclosure states in all caps. “It focused its education efforts on ensuring national herds and flocks would thrive and supported efforts to wisely manage the predator population with a specific focus on the gray wolf.”

While Peay claimed to “represent” Hunter Nation at the Legislature, Mark emphasized that he is no longer an officer with his group.

“Don is one of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to wildlife conservation, especially predator management,” Mark said in an email. “His expertise has been quite valuable to Hunter Nation in the past.”

He promised Utah’s money won’t be wasted and he will be transparent with how it’s spent. In contrast, Big Game Forever has never disclosed how it spends its state grants and is litigating a long-running fight against Utah journalist Eric Peterson to keep him from obtaining key financial information.

“If groups like Hunter Nation don’t start spreading the word, then what you’re going to get is Colorado legislation passed all around you, you’re going to have wolves continue to remain on the endangered species act when they’ve met every possible criteria marker [for recovery],” Mark said. Without state management of wolves, “you’re going to lose bighorn, you’re going to lose moose, you’re going to lose mule and whitetail deer. And the next thing you know, all the hunting dollars that are pouring into the Utah economy are going to be gone.”

Like it or not, every taxpaying Utahn is now helping spread that message.

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