Evidence that a wolf killed a calf in the Monte Cristo area southeast of Logan has prompted a state effort to exterminate the animal plus an environmentalist effort to save it.
State trappers were sent out in late May after a rancher reported the livestock loss, and they found bite marks on the calf consistent with those of a wolf, along with other evidence. If their determination is correct, it would be the first confirmed case of a wolf in Utah since November of 2015.
It is believed the animal is a gray wolf who entered Rich County from Wyoming or Idaho. As fate would have it, the northeastern corner of Utah is exempted from protections afforded gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The unprotected area is north of Interstate 80 and east of Interstate 84.
A Tuesday announcement by the Utah Department of Agriculture that traps are being set for the wolf drew an immediate response from the Arizona-based Center for Biodiversity, which characterized trapping as a “knee-jerk” reaction to the presence of an animal that will likely move on in a short time without inflicting much livestock loss.
“Utah’s policy that the only good wolf is a dead wolf illustrates why these vulnerable animals still need the Endangered Species Act’s protection,” wrote Michael Robinson in a press release issued by the environmental organization. “This intrepid wolf should be allowed to live and continue its journey. We call on Utah officials to pull the traps and seek coexistence instead.”
In a phone interview with The Herald Journal, Robinson spelled out his position further:
“Wolves typically at age 2 often leave their pack of origin, and they set out to make their fortune, so to speak, and find a mate and a place that’s not already home to territorial wolves. That’s very typical behavior, and very often these wolves will keep traveling until they either do find a mate or something happens to them. So it is very likely, assuming this wolf has not found a mate in Rich County, that it will continue to move.”
Leann Hunting, who oversees the livestock industry and predator program for the Utah Department of Agriculture, said exterminating the wolf is not a decision made by her department but a simple matter of carrying out the law.
“Just like any other predator. If it had been a mountain lion, if it had been a coyote, we would have taken these exact same steps,” Hunting said. “That is the state law in Utah. Whenever there is a predator animal that is taking livestock, which happens to be the livelihood of these farmers and ranchers, we have the ability to take measures to eradicate the animal or mitigate the situation so that no further loss can continue.”
Moreover, Hunting disagreed with the notion that a single wolf poses only a minor threat to livestock and other wildlife, noting documented instances where coyotes or wolves have killed dozens of sheep or elk in a single night, either “for the fun of killing” or as way to teach their young how to hunt.
“It’s very common that any predator will kill large numbers, and it’s not always to harvest the meat,” she said. “If we didn’t have state trappers that mitigated predators, we wouldn’t have any wildlife left. They would kill all of our deer and elk, they would kill all of the livestock animals that we have.”
According to a Salt Lake Tribune article this week quoting the Utah Division of Wildlife, only about 15 to 20 wolves have been spotted in Utah over the past 15 years, and there has been no evidence of breeding activity within Utah.
The gray wolf, which has an estimated population of 18,000 in the United States, was taken off the Endangered Species List in the early 2000s but placed back on as a result of lawsuits by environmental groups. It was subsequently delisted in the northeastern corner of Utah, and a 2010 bill passed by the Utah Legislature directed removal of any wolves discovered in the area.
Now a process is underway to again delist the species nationwide, based on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service characterized as “one of the greatest comebacks for an animal in U.S. conservation history.”
In 2019, the service made an official recommendation and took public comment on the issue. This was followed early this year by the introduction of a wolf-delisting bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, co-sponsored by outgoing Utah Republican Rob Bishop, has yet to be acted on by the full House.
Ranchers who suffer livestock losses due to wolves and other predators can apply for compensation through a pool of money administered by the government, but Hunting said this falls “far short” of the animals’ market value because available funds must be divvied up between all ranchers suffering losses.
Robinson said there are methods besides killing to keep wolves away from livestock, and he wishes more ranchers would employ these options before bringing state trappers into the picture.
“Human ingenuity can definitely reduce the potential for wolves to kill livestock by a huge amount,” Robinson said. “There’s been a lot of research and a lot of practical experience that shows that there are very effective ways to protect domestic livestock.”
Among these, he said, are such methods as shortening the calving window each spring and controlling carrion, especially dead ranch animals, that attract predators.
“But the most important thing is a human presence,” he added, “having somebody, whether on foot or on horseback or in a vehicle who is setting off sirens, running at the animal, yelling or throwing things. That’s highly effective against predation if people are willing to put the time into that.”