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Utah's wild side

Critters abound close to cities

Utah really does have a wild side.

Places exist where the button-down state throws off its muzzle. There's unbridled carousing. Hooting and howling. It's OK to bay at the moon. And all within minutes of nearly every city along the Wasatch Front.

The mountains are where the wild things are.

Critters of all kinds — there are some 300 animal species in the Wasatch Mountains — make their homes on the range that anchors the populated valleys from Logan to Provo. Some people just like to look at them. Others like to shoot them.

Animal watching and hunting are among the state's most popular pastimes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are 432,700 residents and nonresidents who watch wildlife in Utah each year, including 286,400 who watch birds. There are nearly twice as many bird-watchers as big-game hunters, whose numbers have diminished the past few years.

Spotted on recent drives were two coyotes tussling over a garter snake near Mountain Dell Reservoir, a cow moose and her calf munching oak brush along Guardsman Pass, and a plump marmot toddling over rocks in Albion Basin.

"How many metropolitan areas can you go to and be this close to a mountain goat?" said Richard Williams, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist scanning the Little Cottonwood Canyon cliffs for the shaggy, white beasts. "It's

amazing what you can see right from the road."

Or from the back yard.

And there comes the rub.

Wildlife managers say the high country where animals spend their summers is in good shape. It's not pristine like it was 150 years ago. But ecosystems are working. Areas that were heavily logged or grazed have made a comeback. Forage and prey are plentiful. Most species are at least making it, if not thriving, though some like the grizzly bear are gone. (There are no endangered species in the Wasatch Mountains. The bald eagle and the Canada lynx are considered threatened.)

But areas below 7,000 feet elevation aren't faring well.

The concrete jungle's continued spread into the forest is paving over traditional animal habitat, particularly in the foothills. Houses, condos, driveways and roads now stand where deer and elk once found sustenance. Though often at odds, wildlife managers, environmentalists and hunters agree, urbanization is the greatest threat to Wasatch wildlife.

"In most instances, people are going to win out over wildlife," lamented Mike Welch, a DWR wildlife manager in Springville. "I don't see it changing."

Winter ranges along the east benches in Salt Lake and Utah counties "are pretty much shot," said Bill Christensen, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a sportsmen's group that promotes habitat conservation and restoration as well as hunting.

"The summer range is fine, but that, of course, is not the limiting factor. The limiting factor is how much food you can eat in the winter. That's what limits population.

"In my opinion, we're setting ourselves up for another disaster like we've seen every 10 years when (animal) populations increase and we don't have the winter range; we have a bad winter and they crash."

Whether the house-covered foothills will ever be suitable winter feeding ground again remains to be seen.

"That's the million-dollar question," Christensen said. "Is it too late?"

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has practically given up trying to restore lost habitat along the Wasatch Front. It prefers to spend its reclamation dollars at higher elevations where it has a chance to make a difference. Or as DWR director Kevin Conway said, "Get a bigger bang for its buck."

Wildlife managers on the Wasatch Front spend a good chunk of their time handling close encounters of the animal and human kind.

Elk wander onto busy highways. Deer roam yards looking for ornamental shrubs. In 2001, wildlife officers removed 30 moose that found their way into foothills neighborhoods. Predators like mountains lions often stalk big game into urban areas.

"One of the ways to balance the population with the habitat is hunting," said Kevin Conway, DWR director.

Hunting is a long-established tradition in Utah, though numbers of those toting rifles in the woods have dropped significantly. Twenty years ago, deer hunters numbered nearly 200,000. Recently, the DWR capped permits at 97,000.

The Western Wildlife Federation isn't anti-hunting, says executive director Kirk Robinson. But it does oppose bagging cougars and bears for trophies. As top-tier predators are killed, Robinson said, mid-level predators proliferate, throwing the food chain out of whack.

Robinson frets that the Wasatch Mountains aren't as wild as they once were. Grizzly bears no longer roam the mountains, and black bears are few. Cougars and bobcats still slink around, but the Canada lynx isn't to be found. Wolverines, too, apparently have disappeared.

"The Wasatch is too fragmented and abused as well as heavily used for them to find a home here," he said. "But I wouldn't count it out completely. For all I know, there might be a lynx tracking a snowshoe hare in the upper basin of City Creek Canyon right now. And if there is not, well, at least there is a mountain lion stalking a deer and possibly a black bear snuggling up in its den for the winter."

Coming Wednesday: Deep powder and trout streams.