SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state officials are balking at the possible inclusion of southern Utah in a recovery zone for the Mexican gray wolf.
Scientific research shows the animals have never lived north of Interstate 40, which runs through New Mexico and Arizona, the Utah Wildlife Board contends in a letter sent this week to the Department of the Interior.
The board suggests that trying to lure the wolves to Utah would actually harm the species because they would hybridize with Northern gray wolves. The animals would prey on the state’s big game population that includes deer and elk and potentially cut into rich hunting terrain that brings in millions to Utah’s coffers.
“Promoting or fostering Mexican wolf recovery in Utah and Colorado is simply bad policy, bad science, bad for the Mexican wolf and bad for the states strapped with the burden of hosting protected wolf populations,” board chairman John Bair wrote.
Interior officials said in a statement that the department is aware of the letter and will review it along with other comments as they formulate a recovery plan.
The board’s letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell dovetails with a similar letter sent last month by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and governors in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided to list the Mexican wolf, a smaller subspecies of the gray wolf, as endangered. Federal wildlife officials estimate there are 110 Mexican wolves in the wild.
Southern Utah was included in the latest draft of a recovery plan that has had several iterations over the last several decades without a final one ever being established, said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Fish and Wildlife officials have convened a meeting next week in southern Arizona to discuss the recovery plan with representatives from Southwest states and some scientists from the team assembled
Robinson aid the board’s letter is wrong on several fronts, including the notion that the historical range of the animal is set in stone. Robinson said there’s some evidence to suggest they did live in parts of Utah. And even if Utah wasn’t a main part of the historical habitat, it may be needed to help the animal flourish in the future, he said.
“The letter is disingenuous. It twists the science on its head,” Robinson said. “It’s clear that the state of Utah is trying to stack the recovery team with people that will keep wolves out of the state.”
Herbert and the other governors also contend in their letter that science does not suggest the animals lived north of Interstate 40, while also accusing Fish and Wildlife of filling a panel dedicated to the recovery plan with scientists who want to establish wolves north of that point.
Robinson disagrees, saying the team of scientists includes some of the world’s foremost experts on wolves.
Wolf reintroduction has been a contentious issue in the Northern Rockies, as well. Gray wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. That population has spread out of the park and into Idaho, Montana and elsewhere.
Utah wildlife officials emphasize in their letter that the introduction of Mexican wolves could cost the state money. The state brings in $20.5 million annually from license, permit and application fees for hunting. About 43 percent of the state’s wildlife division’s budget comes from hunting when you include federal aid based on hunting licenses, the letter said.
Some of the state’s finest hunting terrain is in the southern part of the state that could be impacted, wildlife officials say.
“These hunting permits are extremely popular, and hunters often wait years or decades to obtain a hunting permit to one of them,” the letter said. “We see introduction of federally-managed Mexican wolves as a direct threat to successful wildlife management in Utah.”