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Stewart calls retreat on whirling-disease bill

The Utah Department of Natural Resources is backing off proposed legislation intended to counter the spread of trout-deforming whirling disease.

Natural Resources Director Ted Stewart expressed support two weeks ago for legislation restructuring the Fish Health Board to give wildlife experts more representation in an area controlled by the Utah Department of Agriculture. He argued that recently publicized delays by agriculture inspectors in testing for whirling disease confirmed the need for more involvement by the Division of Wildlife Resources.But after meetings last week with Department of Agriculture and DWR officials, Stewart said Monday he favors administrative changes that do not require legislative approval. He said memorandums of understanding between the agencies will be more effective in restoring Wildlife Resources' participation.

Others see the shift as "a cop-out," said Pat Milburn, fishing representative on the state's Aquaculture Advisory Committee.

"In the past (such agreements) have not been effective," said Milburn. "They are memos. They don't carry any weight."

Ron Goede, state fish pathologist, said he was skeptical of memorandums of understanding "because it leaves us strictly in an advisory capacity with no real vote."

Gov. Mike Leavitt's family runs a trout farm in southern Utah that has had several whirling-disease problems, including the business's no-contest pleas in 1992 to eight misdemeanor charges for illegally moving fish. The governor retains one-seventh ownership interest in the Road Creek Ranch but takes no active management role.

Oversight of commercial fisheries was shifted from the DWR to the Department of Agriculture in 1994, two years after Leavitt's election. Critics said DWR was being squeezed out because of its tough enforcement.

Leavitt's office denies that he is involved in the matter.