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(Dawn Villella | AP Photo) This 2004 file photo shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Evidence of a gray wolf was discovered in Rich County, Utah, earlier this week.
By Zak Podmore
Earlier this week, a trapper working for the state of Utah went to investigate a calf that had been killed by a predator in Rich County. He brought coyote traps, expecting the typical culprit.
But after analyzing scat, tracks and other evidence, the trapper determined the calf was killed not by a coyote, but a rare gray wolf — a species that has been sighted in Utah only a handful of times since it was extirpated from the state in the 1920s.
Traps were set, but the wolf had not yet been killed as of Wednesday, according to Leann Hunting, director of the Animal Industry Division of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, which oversees predator trapping.
A gray wolf in Rich County doesn’t get any special treatment under the law compared to a coyote, Hunting explained. “Our protocols here are not unique to this predator,” she said. “It’s the way we would treat any predator. If there is a predator that is taking the livestock or wildlife of a certain area, then that predator would be dealt with by our predator technicians.”
Had the wolf been spotted elsewhere in Utah, however, the situation would have been handled differently. The gray wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act in much of Utah, but there is an exception in the northwestern part of the state north of Interstate 80 and east of Interstate 84, including Rich County. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for removing wolves where they are protected under federal law.
“Utah’s policy that the only good wolf is a dead wolf illustrates why these vulnerable animals still need the Endangered Species Act’s protection,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This intrepid wolf should be allowed to live and continue its journey. We call on Utah officials to pull the traps and seek coexistence instead.”
Hunting noted that parts of northwest Utah are ideal wolf habitat.
“Scientists have claimed that area of the state of Utah [has] perfect conditions for wolves,” she said. “So if wolves were to come back to Utah … they would come to that area of the state. And sure enough, that’s where they are.”
Three agencies are involved in predator management in Utah: the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program.
“Because the wolf was located in a part of the state where wolves have been delisted from the Endangered Species List, state law directs DWR to prevent their re-establishment in this area and to coordinate with USDA Wildlife Services to remove them,” Faith Jolley, a spokesperson for DWR, said. “If found, this wolf will be euthanized because it has killed livestock.”
The federal Wildlife Services program was established in the late 1800s, and has trapped thousands of wolves. In 2014, it was involved in the extermination of 322 wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 2,930 foxes, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, five golden eagles, and three bald eagles, according to Harper’s Magazine.
Fifteen to 20 individual wolves have been seen in Utah over the past 15 years, according to DWR. Almost all of those have been in counties near Wyoming, Idaho or Colorado. There is no evidence of breeding activity within Utah.
In 2015, “Echo,” the first gray wolf sighted in 70 years in Grand Canyon National Park, traveled north where it was killed by a hunter in southern Utah who said he mistook it for a coyote.
Hunting said that the state’s predator trapping program is essential to protecting livestock and wildlife, noting that a coyote pack can take out dozens of sheep in a single night.
“If we didn’t eradicate the predators…if we didn’t do what we can to level out the playing field, it would completely dissolve our wildlife and livestock population,” Hunting said.
The debate has long raged in western states about the impacts of wolf populations on other animals, but Robinson, the conservationist, called Hunting’s argument “very sad” and “very blinkered.”
“How did the beautiful variety of wildlife survive for millennia before the state of Utah and the federal government started trapping the wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes?” he asked.
Robinson pointed to a study in Grand Teton National Park that showed pronghorn antelope populations increased after wolves were reintroduced, likely because they pushed out coyote populations that were killing pronghorn fawns and changed the patterns of predator-prey interactions.
“It must sound paradoxical for people to think that wolves could do this, but the pronghorn population started rising and reversed its long-term decline,” Robinson said. He also noted that elk populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have increased since wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains in the 1990s.
“People love reading and hearing about and seeing on TV these ecological transformations,” he added. “It’s a terrible shame that the livestock industry has got the machinery of state government preventing wolves’ return and killing this one lone animal.”
In February, then-Rep. Logan Wilde, a sixth-generation sheep rancher from Croydon, sponsored a bill that would prohibit the planned reintroduction of wolves in Utah, a process that has occurred in Wyoming, Idaho and New Mexico and will be considered by Colorado voters this fall.
Wilde was tapped by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in March to lead the Utah Division of Agriculture and Food, which oversees the state’s predator program.