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Northern Rocky Mountains gray wolf
The Salt Lake Tribune, January 21, 2010

Utah lawmaker puts wolves in his crosshairs
But federal protections would likely disarm him.

By Patty Henetz

Wolves are out of control, says Utah Sen. Allen Christensen, and the state's policy should be to kill them. Heck, he did. Went to Canada to bag one. It's at the taxidermist.

And besides, Christensen says, passing a bill to declare Utah's policy to destroy or remove all wolves is a simple case of states' rights.

The North Ogden Republican's goal is spelled out in SB36, which has caught the attention of legislative attorneys who attached a rare warning that the bill, if passed, probably would be found unconstitutional.

Utah Wolves

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, is sponsoring a bill that would require Utah to manage wolves by killing or removing them.

The state already has a wolf-management plan that has gone through some contortions since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took gray wolves off the endangered list in February 2008.

After the delisting, several conservation groups won a temporary court injunction in Montana from a federal judge, whose ruling indicated he favors putting the wolf back on the list permanently. No matter which way he eventually rules, the case will go to an appeals court.

An area in Utah east of Interstate 84 and Interstate 15 and north of I-80 is in the northern Rocky Mountain gray-wolf recovery area. This is the only area now where the state has any kind of management jurisdiction. Wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the rest of Utah.

Two wild wolves confirmed in Utah during the past 75 years were found in the recovery area. The most recent was a gray wolf found dead in a coyote trap north of Tremonton in 2006. The other, a collared wolf known as 253M, was captured in a trap near Morgan in 2002 and taken back to Wyoming, where it rejoined the Yellowstone Druid Peak pack.

Utah's management plan allows for two breeding packs with two offspring each in the recovery area.

Patty Henetz

"Will it be a fight? Absolutely," Christensen concedes. "We have enough money to take it all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court."

The Utah chapters of the Cattlemen's Association and Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife support the bill. The Sportsmen will contribute to litigation costs, says Byron Bateman, president of the Utah chapter.

"We've been in the fight from the get-go," Bateman said, "and we'll be in it to the end."

SB36 is for people who enjoy wildlife, Christensen says, adding he knows wolves are wildlife, too. But they were exterminated in this region in the 19th century "for good reason," he says. "They were simply not compatible with humans anymore."

And now in Utah, Christensen says, "we supposedly don't have wolves. We would like to control our borders and say wolves are not endangered. We would like them not to immigrate into here."

But federal law trumps state law. In Utah, except for a small area included in the northern Rocky Mountain gray-wolf recovery area, wolves remain on the endangered list and under federal protection. So even if Christensen's bill were to take effect, says Ed Bangs, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf-recovery chief, it wouldn't matter.

Anyone who kills a wolf without proper cause in most of Utah still could land in big trouble -- to the tune of a $100,000 fine, a year in prison and loss of the gun that killed the beast and the truck the hunter rode in.

Bangs has heard all the arguments against wolves: They've destroyed elk and moose herds in the Yellowstone region, decimated livestock, hurt ranchers financially and they are man killers -- claims that tell some of the truth about wolves but not all of it.

"People who don't like them give them supernatural powers. It's that way all over the world," Bangs says. "In reality, they're no big deal."

Wolves have contributed to a decline of elk in and around Yellowstone, but moose loss is probably more due to climate disruption. "Moose can't handle heat at all," Bangs says. "They just lie around and don't store body fat."

White-tail deer populations are stable. Weather, loss of habitat, fire and other predators, including humans, have contributed to wildlife losses. In the West, Bangs says, wolves mostly cause problems with livestock depredation.

But they don't kill people. The first documented time a wolf killed a person the federal agency knows of occurred three years ago in Canada at a mining camp where wolves had become habituated to humans who fed them and left garbage around. The wolves had become aggressive. They killed a man who was trying to get close enough to photograph them, Bangs says.

This year, Christensen says, he went to Canada to kill a wolf. "I did kill one. It's currently at the taxidermist," he says. "Wolves are wildlife, too. But they proliferate so fast."

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton