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Proposed wilds areas add little protection, USU researcher says

A Utah State University researcher says most of the state's proposed wilderness areas offer little additional protection for wildlife.

"We don't gain much," said Thomas C. Edwards, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division stationed at USU. "They are in the wrong places."Edwards' findings apply to both the 5.7 million acre proposal of the Utah Wilderness Coalition and the Utah congressional delegation's 1996 proposal for 2.1 million acres.

Both plans are heavily invested in southern Utah's scenic redrock canyons. But Edwards says animals found in these areas - such as ravens, rabbits, pack rats and lizards - are essentially the same as those living in previously protected areas.

Edwards and graduate student Scott D. Bassett contend the focus for wildlife protection should be on other areas. Their top priorities are the Great Salt Lake, one of the forested plateaus of southern Utah, additional desert around St. George, and more of Utah's western desert.

The lake already has several large waterfowl refuges, but Edwards and Bassett say they are too small to support the millions of birds that use the lake and adjacent wetlands.

Bryce Canyon and Boulder Mountain contain few rare and unusual species, but the USU study finds they are home to a diverse collection of wildlife not represented in any existing park or refuge. A large preserve should be created there, Bassett suggests.

A new desert tortoise preserve near St. George helped protect part of the unusual Mojave Desert habitat, but the study concludes more is needed.

The study used a sophisticated computerized mapping process to compare the range of Utah's 525 terrestrial vertebrates to existing protected lands and areas proposed for wilderness. Terrestrial vertebrates are mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Fish, which are among Utah's most endangered species, were not included in this study.

Existing preserves provide enough of the right habitat to sustain about 70 percent of Utah's reptiles and amphibians, 60 percent of the mammals, and 40 percent of the birds. The USU study found that neither of the wilderness proposals significantly increase these percentages.

Bassett says an additional 2.5 million to 3 million acres of carefully placed preserves could provide basic coverage for all 525 species.

Scott Groene, spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, doubted that wilderness would be effective in an area like the Great Salt Lake, where most of the land is in state or private ownership. Further, some of the study's other recommended areas may have too much development to meet the federal definition of wilderness, he said.

Boundaries of the 5.7 million acre wilderness proposal were drawn to include all of Utah's remaining roadless land - whether they are critical to biodiversity or not, Groene explained.

"Different wilderness areas are valuable for different reasons," he said.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, had not yet seen the USU study but recently challenged the notion that biodiversity can be maintained only in wilderness areas and national parks. Hansen stressed the need for a balance between preserving land for biodiversity and using it to meet human needs.

"This is the only forum we've got," Hansen said. "Man has got some rights, too. And when you come right down to it, you've got to say, well, which is more important? Is the slimy slug more important than Homo sapiens?"

Jack Sites, a zoology professor at Brigham Young University, questioned the study's reliance on terrestrial vertebrates while ignoring thousands of other species of fish, plants and insects. He said the 5.7 million-acre proposal was endorsed by many conservation biologists because it is so large it will include habitat for many of the lesser known species.

Still, he said the technique used by Edwards and Bassett could be useful if it were expanded to include more species.