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Bill targets wolves

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

A state senator for eastern Summit County sponsoring legislation that once called for wolves in Utah to be destroyed has softened his controversial bill.

Substitute language in Senate Bill 36 instead would let state wildlife officers request help from the federal government in removing wolves from areas in the state where they are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The newer version of the bill was approved Tuesday afternoon with a 4-2 vote by the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, claimed livestock and wildlife in Utah would be destroyed if wolves roam freely.

Federal law does not protect wolves living in a small chunk of northeastern Utah. But wolves throughout the rest of the state should be removed from the endangered list, Christensen said.

"One hundred years ago they were eliminated from Utah. It wasn’t by accident. It was on purpose," Christensen said.

Today about 1,700 wolves are living in the West, according to Don Peay, a spokesman for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Due to successful recovery efforts wolves in all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon and a small part of northern Utah were removed from the federal endangered list about two years ago.

"Wolves are clearly the reason for dramatic reductions in elk populations," Peay said. "Hunters do not want to go to Idaho and have a bad experience, not see elk and not have a reasonable chance of harvesting an elk."

Hunters in Montana killed about 75 wolves last year, according to Peay. About 150 wolves were killed by hunters in Idaho, he added.

"It’s a train wreck that is coming to the West and we want to see Utah get ahead of this curve," Peay said.

But those views outrage environmentalists.

"There are multiple factors that affect wolf populations, elk populations and deer populations," said Kirk Robinson, director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. "Mule deer populations have been generally on the decline since the 1950s roughly for all kinds of reasons."

Many Utahns view wolves positively and would like to see wolves return to the state, Robinson said.

"We don’t have any packs that we know of right now so it’s hardly an urgent issue," Robinson said.

Lawmakers shouldn’t encourage wildlife officers to kill wolves in violation of federal law, said Joan Gallegos, who owns land in Emigration Canyon.

"The wolf has been extremely beneficial to wildlife," she said. "As a citizen I’m concerned about the Utah state Legislature wasting money on potential lawsuits that really are frivolous in my opinion."

It is likely that legislation calling for protected wolves in Utah to be destroyed could be deemed unconstitutional by a court.

Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Salt Lake City, said she is concerned the original version of Senate Bill 36 would not pass constitutional muster.

"It’s hard for me to support something where we’re asking [officers] to go out and do something that is against the law," Morgan said.

However, state officials have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in livestock and wildlife, Christensen countered.

"The initial bill was a preemptive strike against the wolves migrating into Utah," Christensen said.

Instead of authorizing state wildlife officers to kill wolves the newer bill would require the Division of Wildlife Resources to prevent the "establishment of a viable pack of wolves in areas of the state where the wolf is not listed as endangered or threatened."

Morgan and Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, voted against the substitute bill at the committee meeting.

"We need more information before all of the members of the committee can actually make a good decision," Morgan said before opposing the bill. "This is a significant move."

Congressional representatives have been asked by state wildlife officials to have all wolves in Utah removed from the federal endangered list.

"That’s a real frustration for us at the division of wildlife," Division of Wildlife Resources Director Jim Karpowitz said. "We have a hard time understanding where they are going with wolves in the rest of the state of Utah."


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