WASHINGTON — The nation's largest environmental group, the National Wildlife Federation, called Tuesday for reintroduction of wolves into Utah's Uinta Mountains and the nearby Book Cliffs region. That has ranchers howling.
"It's obviously a concern to us," said Brent Tanner, executive director of the Utah Cattlemen's Association. "The wolf has proven that it will kill livestock. That's an economic concern to us. . . . We would oppose any reintroduction activity."
And Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, has another concern. "I think the idea of wolf reintroduction is a diversion to restrict production of oil and gas" and other development in the Uinta Basin, he said.
The call by the environmental group to reintroduce wolves into Utah, Colorado and northern New Mexico came just as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed reclassifying the animals from "endangered" to "threatened" in most parts of the country.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said he is proposing that because the gray wolf has made remarkable recovery in the past 20 years and is no longer on the brink of extinction.
For example, the wolf population around the Great Lakes now exceeds 3,000. And Idaho and Yellowstone National Park — where wolves were reintroduced just five years ago — now have more than 250.
National Wildlife Federation President Mark Van Putten hailed the comeback of the wolf. He said it shows that reintroduction could be successful and that wolves can coexist with ranchers in other areas such as the Uinta Mountains and the Book Cliffs.
He envisions that helping to spread wolves along the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico.
"It's time to let success breed success," Van Putten said. "That means restoring wolves to many more places through expanded recovery efforts in the West and active promotion of recovery in the Northeast."
Steve Torbit, senior wildlife biologist for the wildlife foundation, said areas his groups feels are the best candidates for wolves are the Uintas and Book Cliffs; Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park; maybe areas near Dinosaur National Monument; and some areas in northern New Mexico.
He said his group has held "informal discussions" with "many people in many walks of life" about introducing wolves in Utah. However, he said neither it nor any other group has performed formal surveys about whether residents there would support it.
In Colorado, however, he said such surveys have been performed, and showed 60 to 70 percent of residents favored reintroduction. With that, he said Colorado may be further ahead in efforts toward any reintroduction.
Larry Dalton, conservation outreach chief for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the state believes that no wolves now live in Utah.
"But within the next five to 10 years, we expect a wolf to make its way here from Yellowstone or central Idaho," he said.
His agency had already planned hearings before regional advisory councils around the state to discuss how to handle such wolves when they arrive. He said they had not planned to discuss any deliberate reintroduction, but it may become an agenda item now.
"We haven't formed a firm and set opinion on it yet," he said, adding the state will look to advice from regional advisory councils before it sets any policy on wolf reintroduction.
Tanner with the Utah Cattleman's Association said his group supports the state in its efforts to plan ahead on how to handle wolves that wander naturally into the state but said, "As an industry, we're opposed to an (intentional) reintroduction program. . . . It's a threat to our business."
Cannon, whose district includes the Uinta Basin, said he feels environmental groups have tried to reduce oil and gas production there to protect the area as pristine wilderness, and "this could be part of that effort."
He added that such opposition to development "has largely closed down the basin to oil and gas exploration, and a large number of oil drilling rigs have been pulled out of the area."