Lawmakers spend $500,000 recruiting out-of-state hunters for Utah’s war on wolves

Before you roll your eyes at the specter of the Utah Legislature spending more money on the campaign against wolves, Keith Mark wants you to give him a chance.

The founder and president of Kansas-based Hunter Nation Inc. will soon spend $500,000 in Utah tax dollars to educate hunters in the Midwest about the supposed evils of Endangered Species Act (ESA) gray wolf protection.

“There are some people who believe that if you just don’t do anything, that [wild] Animals sort of miraculously manage themselves,” said Mark, who describes himself as a lifelong Democrat, in a recent phone interview. “There is nothing magical about the way wolves manage themselves. Kill them and breed them. And if we don’t make it, they’ll kill more, keep breeding, and then there won’t be any moose, no moose, no bighorn [sheep].”

Mark said his group will use the money from Utah to raise hunters in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other Midwestern states where wolves still roam to get more political engagement, particularly on the issue of “predator management.” The ultimate goal is to convince Congress to once again pass legislation to delist wolves nationwide.

Thanks to the successful reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone region, the gray wolf is no longer listed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming where it can lawfully be hunted.

“We want to motivate our hunters to make sure they get the word out, and if policymakers show up for a public hearing on an issue that impacts hunting, such as predator management in this wolf issue, we’ll make sure.” “We want our hunters to show up in their bright orange and camouflage hats so policymakers know the hunters are concerned,” Mark said.

The $500,000 gift is just the most recent gift the Legislature has given to anti-wolf activists, dating back at least a decade, totaling $5.1 million. These handouts have long angered wildlife advocates, who see them as a waste of resources better spent figuring out how to live in harmony with wolves, a native predator that was wiped out a century ago.

“It is extremely unethical to spread such false information and take money from the rest of the public. The animal kingdom belongs to all of us. It’s not exclusively owned by these hunter groups,” said Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. “The fact that the legislature capitulated to their demands is just a scandal.”

Last month, none other than conservative political activist Don Peay, Utah’s leading advocate for big game hunting, appeared before a Legislative Committee on behalf of Hunter Nation.

Peay co-founded the two Utah groups that had previously received anti-wolf funds, first to Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife and later to an offshoot political group called Big Game Forever (BGF). Over the years, the gray wolf has vacillated on the vulnerable list, depending on which party held the levers of power.

While the wolf enjoyed protected status four years ago, the Legislature most recently granted BGF $2 million to fund its lobbying efforts. Since then, the Trump administration has removed wolves from the endangered animals list, allowing Utah to “manage” wolves within its borders for a while. No wolves settled in Utah during that time, but a federal judge in California last year ordered the predator returned to federal protection.

The court’s lawsuit has angered many in Utah, who fear the state must now sit back and watch as wolves “breed” across Beehive State, leaving a bloody trail of mutilated elk and cow carcasses.

Another nuisance for anti-wolf activists in Utah is Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan, due to be implemented later this year, which is expected to result in wolves migrating to Utah.

“Today, wolves are ‘endangered’ in Utah. We cannot touch them, we cannot manage them. You can come in and kill anything,” Peay told lawmakers. “The state of Colorado is bringing 50 to 100 wolves to our eastern border in December.”

Peay’s account of the Colorado plan was a distortion at best. Colorado, for example, does not propose releasing a single wolf on its Utah border. Rather, his reintroduction plan calls for the release of 30 to 50 wolves on Colorado’s West Slope, no closer than 50 miles to a border with a neighboring state.

Some of these wolves would no doubt scatter west and eventually reach Utah.

But Colorado proposes designating these introduced wolves as a “non-essential experimental population” under the ESA, which would allow greater leeway in how they are managed, which would likely allow for lethal removal in some cases.

At an interim hearing in October, Peay presented his well-known doomsday scenario, pointing to Idaho’s “depleted” big game herds to describe Utah’s fate if wolves remain under federal protection. Each wolf kills 25 moose a year, he claimed, to argue that “uncontrolled” wolves would quickly wipe out moose from Utah’s countryside.

Robinson said that claim was “provenly false”. Wolves certainly kill large game with which they have co-evolved over thousands of years, but no peer-reviewed science has found that wolves destroy herds of ungulates. In reality, Robinson said, wolves once played an important role in Western ecosystems that could benefit from their return.

“They exert a top-down influence that affects the structure and functioning of the ecosystem,” he said. “They increase biodiversity and balance the numbers of the others [predator] Species.”

Take coyotes, which became widespread in the West as larger predators became extinct. Coyote numbers have declined with the return of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains.

“As a result, there are more beavers, and as a result of more beavers, there is more water retention, more wetlands, more amphibians, more Neotropical songbirds, more fish,” Robinson said. “Wolves are better for the ecology as a whole. They also make ungulate herds healthier because they take almost exclusively animals that, for one reason or another, will not contribute to reproduction in the future.”

Peay’s newest venture is to recruit Midwestern hunters to support congressional action to eliminate wolves. Such legislation was introduced by Wisconsin Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D) and Ron Johnson (R), but the bill only targets upper Midwest states to remove them from the list.

“If we can convince the Wisconsin hunters to ask [Baldwin] It’s all about the West or no deal, then she can help put Utah on it,” Peay said. “This money will help us go to Wisconsin to get the Hunters to make sure their senators know Utah has to be part of the deal.”

Hunter Nation is a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit organization authorized to engage in political activity.

According to Hunter Nation’s most recently available financial disclosure, Peay was a director of the group in 2019, serving as the sole compensated officer and receiving nearly $80,000 that year. Other officers include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Utah investment firm executive Craig Simpson. Rock legend Ted Nugent is among the most visible members.

“In 2019, Hunter Nation continued to protect the rights of hunters and promoted policies rooted in concepts of God, family, land and the outdoor lifestyle,” reads the disclosure in all caps. “She focused her educational efforts on ensuring national herds and herds would thrive, and supported efforts to wisely manage predator populations with a particular focus on the gray wolf.”

While Peay claimed to “represent” Hunter Nation in the Legislature, Mark stressed that he and his group were no longer an officer.

“Don is one of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to wildlife conservation, particularly predator management,” Mark said in an email. “His expertise has been invaluable to Hunter Nation in the past.”

He pledged that Utah’s money will not be wasted and that he will be transparent about how it is being spent. In contrast, Big Game Forever has never disclosed how it spends its state grants and is engaged in a long-running battle with Utah journalist Eric Peterson to prevent him from obtaining critical financial information.

“If groups like Hunter Nation don’t start spreading the word, then with the Colorado Legislature being passed all around you, you’re going to continue to let wolves remain in the Endangered Species Act if they’ve met every possible criteria marker.” [for recovery]’ said Mark. Without government management of wolves, “you will lose bighorn, elk, and mule and white-tailed deer. And the next thing you know, all the hunting dollars going into Utah’s economy will be gone.”

Like it or not, every taxpaying Utahn is now helping to spread that message.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Lawmakers spend $500,000 recruiting out-of-state hunters for Utah’s war on wolves

Justin Scaccy

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