SALT LAKE CITY – Gray wolves are a rare sight in Utah and a state lawmaker wants to make sure it stays that way.
State Sen. Allen Christensen has proposed a bill that would require state wildlife officials to capture or kill all wild wolves that wander into Utah — even those in areas where they’re protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Christensen, a Republican from North Ogden, said he worries that wolves from neighboring states could eventually decimate Utah’s elk and deer populations and hurt the livestock industry.
If enacted, the bill is probably unconstitutional, violating the supremacy clause where federal law supersedes state law, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
Utah already has a management plan that allows wolves into the state, compensates livestock owners for losses and allows for them to be killed or relocated if they drive down game populations.
Christensen’s bill would take state policy further, though, with the hopes of eliminating any chance wolves could get a foothold anywhere in Utah.
Wolves were wiped out of Utah a century ago for good reason, he said.
“Their lifestyle isn’t compatible with ours. People say that’s a haughty attitude. I’m sorry, we’re here to stay,” Christensen said.
There are about 1,600 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, most of them descended from 66 animals introduced to the region in the mid-1990s by the federal government. They have been taken off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho — which recently allowed public hunts — and the northeast corner of Utah.
There are currently no known wolf packs in Utah although a few loners occasionally wander into the state. A radio-collared wolf was captured in a coyote trap in north-central Utah in 2002. That prompted state officials to start a lengthy process to develop a management plan for others that might wander in.
The state plan, approved in 2005, focuses on conserving wolves that arrive but dealing with those that cause serious problems with livestock and local game populations.
A mail-in survey of Utah residents before the plan found that most had favorable attitudes toward wolves, especially residents in urban areas.
Few, though, have had any close encounters lately.
One wolf with a GPS collar traveled through the state last winter, spending several weeks in northern Utah before wandering toward Vail, Colo., according to Kevin Bunnell, mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“They’re capable of these huge movements,” he said.
Probable tracks of another were spotted earlier this winter but there’s no sign of wolf pairs or packs settling in to stay, Bunnell said.
It’s against federal law to kill wolves in areas where they’re classified as endangered, including most of Utah. That wouldn’t change even if Christensen’s bill goes through, said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Wolf protection would not be affected at all,” he said. “Federal law trumps state law just as state law trumps county law.”
But Christensen said he’s willing to take his proposal as far as possible, including using it to assert state’s rights and fight it out in court.
“It’ll take a while to work its way through all the obstacles,” Christensen said.
He said he hopes private funding — including from sportsmen and livestock groups — could be used to fight any challenge to the law.
Utah’s legislative session starts Monday.
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