Death of Utah wolf is collateral damage

Shooting was side-effect of state's aggressive push to control coyotes

 

In late December, near the town of Beaver, in southwestern Utah, a hunter took aim at a big canine. Then he pulled the trigger, killing it.

The problem is that the animal in the hunter's crosshairs turned out to be a federally-protected gray wolf. In the days following, speculation swirled that the 3-year-old female was none other than Echo (named by schoolchildren), who appeared on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in October – the first gray wolf sighted there in over 70 years.

Though wolves have been delisted in a region of northern Utah, they are still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in southwestern Utah, where the shooting took place. But it’s unclear whether the hunter – who reportedly told officials he thought he was shooting at a coyote – will face criminal charges. (The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, for its part, has already stated that the shooting was accidental.)

Photo by Flickr user Scott Kublin

More details about the animal’s identity and circumstances of its death may be revealed after the completion of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-led investigation, which includes a DNA analysis. But according to Mike Jimenez, a spokesman for the USFWS, there is no definitive time frame for completion. 

While uncertainties abound, what seems clear is that this wolf’s death is collateral damage in Utah’s concerted push to exterminate coyotes – an effort underpinned by two pieces of Utah legislation passed in 2012. The Predator Control Funding Act allocates funds to control predators said to pose a danger to “the health of Utah's non-predatory wildlife.” The second, the Mule Deer Protection Act, sets aside $500,000 dollars per year to pay hunters a $50 bounty for every coyote they kill in areas deemed important mule deer habitat. (Notably, in this case of mistaken identity, a 2010 state law also requires wildlife managers to prevent the reestablishment of wolf packs in the state.)

Last year, more than 7,000 coyotes were killed across Utah – resulting in $352,000 in payments – under the state’s Predator Control Program. (According to DWR figures, an additional 2,700 coyotes were killed by hunters but not submitted for payment.) Since the law’s passage in 2012, more than 14,000 of the canids have been killed under the state coyote bounty program.

To date, says Mark Hadley, a spokesman for the Utah DWR, over 2,000 hunters have been certified as eligible to receive bounties. Hadley said he is unsure if the wolf shooter is among them. To become certified, hunters must complete a short online quiz. Incidentally, I took and passed the Utah Predator Control program quiz last week. The test consists of 10 questions and focuses on the specific provisions and intent of the law. But it conspicuously lacks questions about safe hunting and humane trapping practices; moreover, it does not require the test taker to identify a picture of a coyote, much less distinguish one from any other animal -- like a large dog or a wolf.

While news of a wolf at the Grand Canyon enthralled the public, it is perhaps little surprise when one considers the rate of their population growth and dispersal across the West. USFWS estimates that the wolf population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (the states with the greatest number of wolves in the Lower 48) has grown to over 1,500 since federal wildlife agents reintroduced more than 60 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone in 1995.

Besides Echo, the West’s best-known wild canine is OR7, a male gray wolf who in 2011 wandered more than 1000 miles between Oregon and California, becoming the first wolf confirmed in Oregon since 1947 and in California since 1924.  He now has a mate, pups and another adult wolf has reportedly joined the pack. Though reports of wolves have been infrequent in Colorado and Utah, there have been at least a few sightings. In 2010, a gray wolf was trapped and killed in Rich County, Utah by wildlife managers after attacking livestock.

If the wolf shot in December proves to be Echo, there is sure to be a collective howl of despair from wolf advocates. If, however, the animal happens to be another far-ranging female, the story will be no less mournful – but it will also become far more interesting.

Stay tuned.