Crying ‘Wolf’

Utah doesn’t have any established wolf packs now, but that could change with time

The last reported wolf in Utah was already dead when it was discovered. The animal, a gray wolf found in Randolf, Utah, three years ago at the end of 2015, had strangled to death. It was caught inadvertently in a trap set for coyotes.

Confirmed a gray wolf through DNA testing, it was the second wolf killed in Utah within a year. The first had been accidentally shot by a coyote bounty hunter in Southern Utah. Two encounters in one year. Though both ended poorly for the animals, some wolf-lovers took these incidents as signs of hope. Might the presence of these animals portend a new chapter for wolves in Utah? Could they finally be moving in?

Canis lupus has been on a recovery track in the Western United States for the past 23 years. Since being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, these large predators have successfully dispersed throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and beyond. According to data from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wyoming is now home to 333 wolves. Idaho is home to 770. Montana has 554. Oregon has 77 and Washington, 48. There are even 113 Mexican gray wolves, a new experimental population, in Arizona and New Mexico. (Alaska is projected to have up to 11,200 wolves, and the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have nearly 4,000.) Yet, despite healthy populations across the West and beyond, Utah remains a rare and unusual blank space on the map.

That doesn’t mean they are not here. According to Robert Schmidt, associate professor of environment and society at Utah State University, at any given time there are probably half a dozen wolves on the move somewhere between Bear Lake and Lake Powell. But don’t bet on finding them.

“The interesting thing about wolves,” Schmidt says, “is that packs of wolves will let themselves be known. They leave scent marks. They howl and communicate between each other. But dispersing wolves are very quiet. They are aware that they may be moving unwelcome through another animal’s territory. So, we are often surprised when they show up. I think if we had an established wolf pack, it would be hard to keep it a secret.”

Gray wolf

Most of the wolves moving through Utah are likely on their way between Idaho and Colorado. We like to think of Utah as a place with lots of open space. But the impact of our state’s freeways, agriculture and livestock operations is significant. Schmidt believes that we will have an established pack in Utah someday, but it will take time.

There are six core areas in Utah that Schmidt and his colleagues believe wolves are most likely to someday inhabit—places wolf-sighting enthusiasts might want to keep eyes and ears on. For those of us living along the Wasatch Front (and Wasatch Back), the most accessible of these areas are the Book Cliffs and southern Uinta Mountains.

The Book Cliffs, mostly BLM-managed land, are already a Shangri-La for hunters who know that these remote pinyon and juniper slopes grow some of the biggest trophy elk and deer in the state.

Road access starts to the north of the cliffs around Vernal and Fort Duchesne. Anyone entering into the maze of dirt roads needs a really good map and stellar sense of direction. Go visit, and you’ll see why it might be possible for a wolf pack to hide here.

The southern Uinta Mountains might be a friendlier place to go looking for wolves someday, if you’re willing and able to hike. The best access points for these forested slopes are near the towns of Duchesne and Hanna. Roads going north from these towns will get you a few miles into the forest and put you on well-maintained Forest Service trails that go far back into the wilderness—exactly where the wolves will want to be, away from noise and people.

The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation covers large parts of both the Book Cliffs and the southern slopes leading into the Uinta and Ashley national forests. Travelers going to either of these places will pass through portions of the reservation. You must know when you are on reservation land and when you are not. It’s your responsibility. Have a map. Non-tribal members are not allowed to stop on tribal land without permission. So, be a good neighbor, and don’t leave your car on the side of a random road to go walking wherever you want.

 

It often seems that the biggest barrier to wolves moving into Utah is people. There are just too many haters. Utah’s Legislature remains openly hostile to wolves. Over the years, it’s awarded millions of taxpayer dollars to the member organization, Big Game Forever, (with another $2 million allotted this year) to keep the anti-wolf propaganda machine churning. Big Game Forever tells us that wolves will hunt to near extinction the state’s deer, elk and moose populations, and that these canines will have negative impacts on grazing and the economy.

 

“It’s almost laughable that people are saying there is not a place in this state for a hundred wolves.” —Robert Schmidt

Despite such misinformation, the public’s opinion on wolves in this state remains positive. A 2003 statewide survey conducted by Schmidt showed that 74% of Utah residents, rural and urban, “expressed a positive attitude towards wolves.” The majority of respondents agreed that wolves help maintain healthy ungulate populations and are important to a healthy ecology.

“When you think about how big our state is,” Schmidt notes, “it’s almost laughable that people are saying there is not a place in this state for a hundred wolves. Maybe there’s not space in New Jersey, but here, there is. You just have to wait out those that don’t want wolves in Utah. You know, eventually they’ll figure out that the sky isn’t falling.”

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