Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story: Utah ushers its frogs toward oblivion
Officials in Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources barely had time to note the news that Dick Carter was mothballing his Utah Wilderness Association before the perennial thorn in their sides was back demanding action on another issue. Carter spent nearly 20 years with the now-defunct UWA, writing, lobbying and, some people say, harassing the state's wildlife managers about issues as varied as bear baiting, sandhill crane hunting and cougar hounding.
Now, Carter is at it again, harassing those same people about a project that's killing foxes and raccoons in his own back yard.
The state wildlife agency, at the direction of the state Legislature, has funded a project that calls for killing every mammalian predator on study sites in Sevier and Cache counties in an effort to improve pheasant hunting. The federal agency, Animal Damage Control, will kill every fox, raccoon and skunk in the study areas; Utah State University researchers will monitor the ecological consequences.
Carter says the project is the vestige of a predator-killing era that should be long gone, and any scientific data that might come of it will do nothing more than reflect research already done 25 years ago. He is irate, he says that state wildlife managers, Utah State scientists and pheasant hunters themselves would not stand up to the state Legislature and say, "No, the mass slaughter of foxes is not the answer for anything, even if a couple of pheasant eggs survive."
State officials defend the project by saying the Legislature directed them to spend $70,000 each year for the next five years to control predators on upland game habitat. If there is any finger-pointing to be done, they say it should be in the direction of legislators who wrote the bill.
Dean Mitchell, upland game coordinator for the state wildlife agency, says he has often told legislators that improving habitat is the key to boosting pheasant populations. But State Rep. Brad Johnson has heard that pitch before and he's not buying it. "The problem is predators," he says.
Johnson says he's tired of listening to wildlife biologists tell him habitat is the problem on his home turf. The habitat has not changed significantly in the 61 years he has lived in Sevier Valley, he says; what's changed is that there now are more foxes, skunks and raccoons, and they're decimating the pheasant populations.
"They (wildlife managers) go to college and are trained as biologists and come back and tell us what we're seeing with our eyes. Some of these people are more emotionally involved than scientifically involved," Johnson says.
Carter's eyes see the situation differently. If you want to watch pheasant predators on the prowl, he says, take a drive through the rural parts of the state in the spring and watch as farmers burn ditch banks and mow the edges of their fields. Certainly predators take their share of birds at dinnertime - that's what predators do, he adds. But other factors significantly dent the populations: disease, weather, hunters, poachers, and habitat loss.
Carter saves most of his ire for researchers at Utah State University; he is an alumnus of the school's College of Natural Resources. He says the study uses sledgehammer methods - trapping and shooting - in hopes it will produce a few more pheasants to shoot, and it's biased by the assumption that pheasants are more important than foxes.
"The point of this 'study' is not science. It is ... to simply kill predators to see what happens," Carter wrote to the dean of the natural resources college.
Utah State researcher Mike Conover says his role is to answer factual questions, not debate whether the Legislature made the right decisions.
The five-year study, he points out, will address the importance of habitat fragmentation, predator rates on ground-nesting birds, and cost/benefit ratios about predator control as it relates to increasing pheasant populations.
"At the end of our study, we will be able to say, 'You spent this much money and here are the consequences.' It's up to society and the state Legislature to say, 'Yeah, this is a good expenditure of state funds, or no, it's a waste of money,' " Conover says.
That's exactly the attitude that angers Carter. Scientists cannot hide quietly behind a "quest-for-knowledge" badge of academia in an attempt to wash their hands of the slaughter of wild animals, he says. They are part of the problem, whether they want to admit it or not, and they're kidding themselves if they think the public is going to let them take that easy way out.
"The study is published by Mike Conover and USU. Somebody who likes blood a little more than he does will do the actual killing," Carter says. "But the killing is on his shoulders and the blood of the study is in Conover's report and Conover's statistics."
That kind of emotional language twists the role of USU researchers, Conover says. It assumes he and his team are killing predators in order to have the study. In fact, no one at USU is killing any predators, and he says it is only because the Legislature mandated the predator control program in the first place that any study is under way.
Researchers have to be objective; they have to be non-advocates, and this controversy is perfect proof of why, Conover adds. Does Carter think one more opinion will change the Legislature's stance? "Opinion is not going to satisfy (Rep.) Brad Johnson," he says. Good scientific data that either supports Johnson's position or Dick Carter's position will.
"He (Johnson) says he has to be 'proven wrong,' and there's only one way to prove him either right or wrong and that's to do a study."
For more information, contact Dick Carter in Hyrum, Utah, at 801/245-6747; Dean Mitchell of Division of Wildlife Resources at 801/538-4786; Mike Conover of Utah State at 801/797-2436; or State Rep. Brad Johnson at 801/529-7443.
The writer works in Salt Lake City.