Wolves May Be Coming Back Into Utah

 

September 14, 2002

 

By Brent Israelsen

The Salt Lake Tribune

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Salt Lake City, Utah 84111

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The gray wolf -- eliminated in Utah by ranchers more than 70 years ago -- appears to be back.

Federal wildlife experts say a lone wolf likely ventured deep into the state this summer, roaming the hills south of Logan for about a month.

The news will delight conservationists and others who regard wolves, a federally protected endangered species, as a key element of America's wild heritage and an important component of a healthy ecosystem.

But the thought of wolves returning to Utah also is likely to cause heartburn in the ranching community, already reeling from pestilence and drought.

If this particular animal's sojourn foretells the future, the ranchers cannot be blamed for worrying: It killed 15 lambs over the course of about two weeks.

Most of the lambs suffered crushed skulls, an injury coyotes do not inflict on prey this size.

"I'd say it was a wolf ... There is very little doubt about it," said Ed Bangs, the Montana-based coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's [FWS] wolf recovery program. ed_bangs@fws.gov  406-449-5225 ext. 204 (In charge of all federal wolf mgmt in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.)

Biologists have predicted for years that wolves, which regularly roam 300 to 500 miles from their home, eventually would move into Utah.

Several unconfirmed sightings have occurred in the state in recent years, but this summer's events offer the most compelling evidence to date that the wolf has finally returned.

A wolf-like creature was spotted July 7 by a Chilean sheepherder working on private property south of Hardware Ranch, about 25 miles southeast of Logan. The animal was feeding on a lamb carcass but fled when it saw the sheepherder.

An investigator for Wildlife Services, the federal agency responsible for protecting agriculture from wild animals, later heard a wolf howling in the area, said Mike Bodenchuk, the agency's Utah field director.

Two other ranchers in the vicinity heard the wolf howl in subsequent weeks, during which additional lambs were killed.

Based on the sighting, the howling and the animal's behavior, including its eventual flight from the area, Bodenchuk said he is almost "100 percent" sure the animal was a wild wolf.

"By all standards, we have confirmed wolf damage," Bodenchuk said. "It's very good evidence, the best we've ever had."

There remains a chance, however, it was a wolf-hybrid dog.

Craig McLaughlin, who coordinates the mammals program for the Utah Division of Wildlife was skeptical the lambs succumbed to a wild wolf.

Absent a body, said McLaughlin, "It's a very difficult call to make."

If it was a wolf, the federal experts said, it probably was trying to stake out territory to establish a pack.

Because domestic sheep were killed, Bangs authorized federal Wildlife Services to destroy this particular animal if it were found in Utah. Anyone else who kills a wolf could be criminally charged with violating the Endangered Species Act.

The animal is believed to have returned in August to its home pack, most likely in the Yellowstone-Grand Teton region, about 135 miles north.

"We'll watch the situation but we don't believe he's still in the state," Bodenchuk said.

Citing privacy constraints, Bodenchuk would not identify the rancher who lost the sheep. But the rancher may qualify for reimbursement for the losses, estimated between $80 and $100 a head, from a fund administered by the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

So far, the rancher has not applied for reimbursement, said Suzanne Leveret, a Defenders wolf expert in Boise.

Bangs said the wolf's stay in Utah should come as a wake-up call to state wildlife managers and lawmakers to prepare for the possible re-establishment of wolf packs near or inside the state.

Missing from the lower 48 states for about 50 years, wolves have made a remarkable comeback in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, thanks largely to programs launched during the Clinton administration.

Breeding pairs of Canadian gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s. Wolves from Canada had already re-established themselves in Montana a decade earlier.

By most accounts, the effort has gone better than expected. More than 700 individuals and about 40 breeding pairs of wolves are thriving in the three-state region -- enough to meet the goals of the federal wolf-recovery plan.

Within a few months, the agency is expected to reclassify the wolf's status from "endangered" to "threatened," meaning that federal restrictions on killing or harassing the animal would be relaxed.

Bangs said the wolf likely will be removed from the endangered species list in two years.

Although Idaho, Montana and Wyoming state officials initially resisted wolf recovery efforts, they have come to accept the animal as a permanent fixture in the wild, Bangs said.

In anticipation of the wolf's removal from the endangered list, Idaho has adopted a wolf management plan that the FWS says will ensure the species' continued survival. Montana should have such a plan in place by year's end, while Wyoming is drafting one now.

Utah officials are not actively working on a wolf-management plan, in part because they are not required to, as the state is not part of the federal wolf recovery effort.

McLaughlin, who worked on wolf issues in Maine before coming to Utah this year, said his division is gathering information about wolves and plans to begin a public process soon to develop a plan. There is no timetable for when that process will unfold.

If the wolf is removed from the endangered list, the state can authorize its extermination, try to integrate it into the wildlife mix or do nothing.

"From a professional perspective, I don't care what Utah does," Bangs said. "From a personal perspective, there are a lot of reasons to have wolves around."

He suggested, however, that Utah act soon on a plan, "before there are dead sheep everywhere and the wolf lovers and wolf haters are beating each other over the heads.

"If you are unprepared for wolf issues, they will eat your lunch."

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