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FLAP OVER LEAVITT FISH FARM HAS WILDLIFE AGENCY UNEASY

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' dealings involving a trout farm owned by the family of gubernatorial candidate Mike Leavitt have created dissension within the division.

Last year, fish at the family's Road Creek Ranch were found to be infected with a trout illness called whirling disease. The ranch, based in Loa, is in Wayne and Sevier counties.Recently a radio talk show publicized claims that the ranch may have been allowed to continue in business as a political favor to the Leavitt family: Dixie Leavitt, a retiring state senator, is on the ranch's board of directors; Mike Leavitt was a director until he sold his interests after the controversy broke.

On the other hand, Dane Leavitt, brother of the Republican standard-bearer, charges that a couple of people within the DWR are carrying out a "vendetta" against Road Creek Ranch.

"You've got some folks there at the DWR that are politically motivated," he said.

He denies the ranch received political favors.

"I cannot help it that my father is a state senator, and I can't help it that my brother is running for governor. Neither choice is mine.

"But I have a business that we need to run, and we have exercised extreme care to keep both my father and my brother uninvolved in the controversy. . . . This is not a situation where undue influence has been exercised."

Tim Provan, the DWR's head, denies the division is unfair.

Asked about Dane Leavitt's "vendetta" charges, Provan said, "This one's hard to comment on.

"I do think we have employees in the division that believe I should have shut them down immediately." Just as opinions differ within the general population, he said, within the DWR some experts agree and some disagree with his approach in dealing with the ranch.Road Creek Ranch was the first site in Utah where whirling disease was discovered. The disease kills trout and could ruin commercial fish growers.

Affecting young trout but not harmful to people, the illness is called whirling disease because fish lose directional control and swim in circles, sometimes starving because they can't swim to food. It can be spread by live fish, by spores in mud transferred from one stream to another or even by herons taking fish from a contaminated area and flying to a different region.

After the disease was discovered, the DWR at first seemed to blame Road Creek Ranch for importing it. But then the disease was detected far upstream and in later stages. Provan is convinced the ranch did not bring it to Utah.

The ranch has cooperated with the state, building facilities and shutting down production temporarily, at a cost of about half a million dollars, said Dane Leavitt, a Cedar City lawyer who is one of the ranch's directors.

He said the threat of legal action, not favoritism, led the state to let Road Creek Ranch remain in business. Utah could have an expensive liability if it forced the ranch to close.

"We have one by one shut down all of our facilities. And we still have facilities that are out of production," Dane Leavitt said.

"We filed water-right applications for four sites," where a new facility could be built. But after it was mostly built at a cost of $70,000, the DWR protested all four applications.

Road Creek officials wrote to the DWR that if the fish farm had to go out of business to help the state eradicate whirling disease, it would. But because they contended the disease was already in the waters of the state and not brought in by the ranch - and because the state allegedly did not test its waters to see if the disease was there - then the shutdown was the state's fault, not theirs.

Therefore, if the state closes the fish farm, "we need to be compensated," Dane Leavitt said.

A couple of weeks after the letter was sent, Provan asked the trout farm and the state work together to solve the problem, he added.

Provan said he always was predisposed to work with the family because the business is important to southern Utah.

Asked what is the standard practice when whirling disease is found at a fish farm, he said it is to "continue to work with them. I don't know of any hatchery that's been shut down in the West due to whirling disease."

Meanwhile, Provan said, he's trying to maintain a balanced approach.

Last year, Road Creek pleaded no contest to six "representative" misdemeanor violations, out of what Dane Leavitt says were 20 to 30 improper fish movements. It agreed to pay a $25,000 fine and improve its housekeeping.

DWR officials later inspected the ranch and contended it was not living up to all agreements. But Provan said the division has since resolved these problems to his satisfaction.

Still, some fish farmers in the area wonder how Road Creek could continue in business, since the disease remains there.

"We were told we couldn't put them out of business," said Bruce Schmidt, fisheries chief for the DWR. "That came from our administration."

"We haven't been treated very special at all," Dane Leavitt said. Then he modified the comment: that is, he said, not unless "special treatment's having your business devastated by the state's regulatory response."