Wolf Politics in Utah

By Kirk Robinson, PhD
Executive Director
Western Wildlife Conservancy

Historically, there were wolves in Utah, yet today there are no known breeding pairs or packs of wolves in Utah. Wolves captured in Canada were reintroduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-nineties, but none were reintroduced into Utah. A couple of years later, descendants of a few remnant Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced into parts of New Mexico and Arizona, but none were reintroduced into Utah, although the southern part of the state is within the northern extent of the lobo’s historic range. Will wolves from the north or the south ever set up home in Utah?

A small part of northern Utah lies within the Northern Rockies Distinct Population Segment (DPS)–a geographical designation for the intended recovery area. This area includes the Bear River Range, which runs north-south from Utah into southeastern Idaho and is the only continuous forested link between the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah and the various mountain ranges (Salt River, Wyoming, Teton) that lie within the greater Yellowstone ecoregion. The Uinta Mountains, in turn, connect up with wild country in Colorado. Thus, the Bear River Range and the Uinta Range together form a major wildlife corridor between the northern and southern Rockies. As documented by satellite monitoring, this mega-corridor has already been used by wolves and lynxes traveling between the two regions. (See map.)

When the House and Senate passed the budget bill, attached was a rider that delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho, and parts of Utah, Washington, and Oregon. Unfortunately, that means that wolves are now delisted in Utah within the Northern Rockies DPS. Thus, any wolves found within this area can be legally killed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR). In preparation for this, in 2010 the Utah Legislature passed S.B. 36 ordering the UDWR to “prevent the establishment” of a pack of wolves within the part of the Rocky Mountain DPS within Utah. Meanwhile, the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are busy either killing wolves or planning to (wolves are still protected in Wyoming pending a management plan acceptable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Fortunately, within the 90 percent or so of Utah outside the DPS, wolves remain fully protected under the Endangered Species Act, a situation that gives UDWR fits. At least twice the agency has written to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, demanding that Utah be given managerial authority over wolves throughout the state. So far, the secretary seems to have ignored this demand.

Meanwhile, Senator Orrin Hatch, “hatchet man” for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and Big Game Forever, has written editorials published in the St. George Spectrum declaring his intent to fight any attempt to expand the Mexican wolf recovery area to include parts of Utah – never mind that, as indicated by professional surveys, most Utahans are positive about the idea.

Modeling indicates that Utah can support up to 200 wolves and Colorado, up to 1,000 wolves. Populations of this magnitude would be part of a connected meta-population of wolves from Mexico to Canada, which might in fact be necessary for the very salvation of the Mexican wolf. Unfortunately, we cannot now predict that either state will ever have viable populations of wolves. It’s going to be a tough fight, with Utah poised to become ground zero.

Map description: The Uintas-Yellowstone Connection is a mega-corridor connecting wildlands in Utah and Colorado with the greater Yellowstone ecoregion. It is of particular importance to cougars, bears, wolves, lynxes and wolverines. An especially vital segment of the U-Y Connection is the Bear River Mountains Link, outlined in the smaller box. This 80-mile long mountain range, with summits between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, is the only mountain link connecting the Utah and Colorado Rockies with the greater Yellowstone ecoregion. Wolves dispersing from the Yellowstone region have been tracked via satellite as they moved along the Uinta and Bear River ranges, as have lynxes from Colorado as they moved north.

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