This 2004 photograph provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks shows an adult male wolf from the Lazy Creek pack north of Whitefish, Mont.
SALT LAKE CITY — More than a dozen Utah environmental groups have banded together to plead for continued protections for the gray wolf, which they fear could be removed from the Endangered Species List as early as next year.
The Western Wildlife Conservancy and the Utah Environmental Congress were among 18 signatories that penned a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week, urging the animal remain protected in the lower 48 states.
Such continued protection could foster reintroduction of the wolf in Utah, where the groups contend the ecosystem is out of balance because of the absence of the predators.
"Utah has room for wolves," the letter to Salazar reads. "There are large areas of quality wolf habitat on many of our national forests and other public lands. Even without direct reintroduction, wolves will migrate to these places naturally if we let them."
The prospect of wolves in Utah — they were exterminated in the state nearly a century ago — has been an emotionally charged issue both politically and on the ground, where livestock owners place high value on the sentiment that the only good wolf is a dead wolf.
Wolf advocates, in their letter to Salazar, stress that by and large, public opinion polls support a different position.
"A 2004 scientific public opinion survey conducted at Utah State University indicated that a substantial majority of Utahns like wolves, want to see them in the state, recognize that they are a necessary component of healthy ecosystems, and do not believe that they would pose an unacceptable risk to human activities, livestock or big game."
Over the years, the possibility of wolves existing in Utah has engendered a lot of attention — both good and bad.
A team of state wildlife biologists in late spring this year took extensive measures to determine if a pack of wolves spotted up Spanish Fork Canyon was just that — or wolf hybrids.
They eventually determined the animals were imposters — not wolves at all.
In 2002, however, the wolf lovers and wolf haters were in a frenzied uproar with the capture of wolf No. 253 in Morgan County, where the 2-year-old male was snared in a coyote trap.
The solitary male wearing a radio collar was from the Druid Pack in Yellowstone National Park and was the first confirmed wolf spotted in Utah in 70 years.
The discovery spurred Utah's efforts to refine its wolf management plan and just last year, lawmakers were jockeying to establish rules for a "wolf hunt" should they ever make a showing.
No. 253 was returned to the park, but shot in 2008 outside of Daniel, Wyo., which is an area where wolves are not protected.