Friday, September 11, 2015

Can Utah do more to protect wolves from bullets meant for coyotes?

First Published

Conservationists say safeguards are badly needed to protect wolves from cases of mistaken identity.
On a fall morning last year, two men driving along State Route 14 on Utah's Cedar Mountain saw a large canine saunter onto the road. At first they thought the animal was their dog, but soon they realized it could be a gray wolf, the inconvenient predator that hasn't been seen much in Utah for decades. Around its neck they saw what appeared to be a black collar holding a silver box. They stopped to watch the animal, which seemed indifferent to their presence as they snapped a photo. It left the road from the direction it came and walked up a hill as if watching for something, according to a report taken five days later by a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officer. 

Although the men reported the wolf sighting and posted photos of the animal and its tracks, DWR did nothing to alert the hunting community to take precautions to avoid shooting a wolf, a federally protected animal.

(Motorists driving on Cedar Mountain photographed what appears to be collared wolf crossing State Route 14 east of Cedar City on Nov. 20, 2014. Conservationists believe this is the same animal shot by hunters Dec. 28 near Beaver 65 miles away. The man who pulled the trigger says he mistook the wolf, which is federally protected, for a coyote, which are subject to a $50 state bounty. Utah wildlife officials have come under fire for not taking steps to protect this wolf from coyote hunters. Courtesy photo) .

Hardly a month later, on Dec. 28, the 3-year-old female wolf — the same one observed on the Grand Canyon's North Rim last October and dubbed Echo — was shot. A .223- caliber round tore though her chest while she wandered east of Beaver. The man who pulled the trigger had been stalking cougar that day and mistook the animal for a coyote, a species subject to no hunting restrictions.
Conservationists are using the Nov. 20 sighting to renew criticism of Utah's controversial bounty on coyotes, which they believe serves no legitimate biological purpose and could undermine the re- establishment of wolf populations in Utah.

"Utah officials helped kill this female wolf who could have contributed to recovery of her kind and the health of ecosystems in Utah," said Michael Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity's wolf advocate. Robinson's colleague Robin Silver obtained documents about the Nov. 20 sighting through a government record request. "Despite a clear photo of the wolf taken 65 miles from where she died, and online threats to kill her, state officials continued to offer $50 for every dead coyote," Robinson said. "Echo's unnecessary death underscores the importance of retaining and enforcing federal protection for wolves. And given the primacy of federal law, we strongly recommend that Utah reconsider its repugnant, antediluvian practice of bounty hunting altogether."

Courtesy of Arizona Game and Fish Department File photo of the gray wolf known as 914F and later dubbed "Echo." The wolf was shot and killed outside Beaver, Utah, by a hunter who mistook the collared female wolf for a coyote.

On Monday, Robinson sent DWR director Greg Sheehan a request to suspend the bounty program within 200 miles of documented wolf sightings and to make other adjustments to minimize dangers to wolves from unregulated coyote hunting. 

Agency officials, however, said such a suspension policy would be nearly impossible to implement and wouldn't accomplish much because dispersing wolves, like those roaming through Utah, cover huge distances. They also noted that the men who shot Echo were not enrolled in Utah's coyote program, so Robinson's recommendations would not have saved the wolf. "Their choice to harvest what they thought was a coyote was not motivated by the bounty program," said Leslie McFarlane, DWR's game mammal coordinator. 

Under the Mule Deer Protection Act, bounty collectors have killed more than 7,000 coyotes each year since the program started in 2012, while contract hunters have killed a few hundred more in areas where mule deer are struggling. Over the most recent year, ending June 30, the bounty program yielded 8,192 sets of ears, surpassing the previous year by more than 1,000, according to McFarlane.
She added that it would be very hard to advise coyote hunters because they don't need to interact with DWR unless they are collecting bounties. "Coyotes are a nonprotected species; you don't even need a hunting license," she said. 

Kim Hersey, DWR's mammal conservation coordinator, has conceded the animal in the photograph in question was most likely Echo, but contends the grainy photo did not conclusively depict a wolf. So, she said, officials at the time could not be certain the animal seen Nov. 20 was a wolf, and it was not from any lack of trying. Officials visited the site of the sighting near the Zion Overlook pullout in search of scat to analyze and checked frequencies used by known wolf radio collars, but found nothing. "You expect to get repeated sightings over time, and we didn't get any other reports on this animal," Hersey said. 

Courtesy | Arizona Game and Fish Department File photo of the gray wolf known as 914F and later dubbed "Echo." The wolf was shot and killed outside Beaver, Utah, by a hunter who mistook the collared female wolf for a coyote.

Managing wildlife is a state prerogative, but conservationists believe Utah's coyote program could run afoul of the federal Endangered Species Act if safeguards are not in place to protect wolves from such instances of mistaken identity.

Robinson wants the state to educate all enrollees in the bounty program on how to distinguish the two predators, reminding them that wolves could be present in Utah and that killing them violates the law; request all hunters report wolf sightings; provide a $1,000 reward to those who provide evidence of a live wolf in Utah; and create a system to notify bounty hunters of the presence of wolves when a credible report arises.