Although their population numbers were uncertain, the historic range of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in Utah was probably statewide (Barnes, 1922; Durrant, 1952; Switalsk et al. 2002). Wolf abundance depends on the abundance of prey and historic records indicate that mule deer, the most likely prey for wolves, were relatively scarce (Durrant 1952). Healthy wolf populations most likely occurred in pockets of high ungulate density in spite of competition with grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, and coyotes for prey or carcasses. Unfortunately, aggressive predator extermination eliminated gray wolves from Utah by the early part of the 1900s, and by 1929 wolves were considered extirpated in the state (La Vine, 1995).
Today, credible modeling indicates that approximately13,900 square miles (36,000 km²) of Utah’s forested mountains has the potential for wolf recolonization (Switalsk et al. 2002: 14[Figure 4]). Despite high road density fragmentation, a number of relatively large, contiguous areas of high-quality habitat include the western and eastern Uinta Mountains, East and West Tavaputs Plateau, and the High Plateaus of central Utah and northern Arizona. Researchers believe the state could support between 200 and 700 wolves (Switalsk et al. 2002). Despite an overwhelming preponderance of scientific support for the restoration of viable wolf populations, the Utah Wolf Management Plan (not approved by USFWS) considered an anemic population of “at least two breeding pairs of wild wolves successfully raising at least two young each” as sufficient.
In any event, recent research suggest that potential northern Utah core areas could serve as a key “stepping stone” to restore and enhance connectivity between separated, genetically vulnerable wolf populations (Carroll et al IN PRESS: Figure 4). Restoring connectivity between fragmented populations is an important tool for alleviating genetic threats to endangered species, especially the critically endangered Mexican wolf. Recent genetic research suggests a wide historic zone of genetic intergradation between the Mexican wolf (C. l. baileyi ) and other wolf subspecies in southern Utah and Colorado (SCB 2011:10; Leonard et al. 2005). Research also indicates that the southwestern United States holds three core areas with long-term capacity to support populations of several hundred wolves each (Carroll et al. 2006). These three areas of generally public land, are located in eastern Arizona / western New Mexico (“Blue Range”, the location of the current wild Mexican wolf population), northern Arizona / southern Utah (“Grand Canyon”), and northern New Mexico/ southern Colorado (Carroll et al. 2006).
Utahns Like Wolves
La Vine (1995) conducted a survey of 707 Utah residents and public land-grazing
permittees regarding their attitudes toward wolves. A majority of Utah residents held either positive or neutral attitudes toward wolves. Subsequent studies in 2003 revealed similar findings with nearly three quarters (74%) of Utah residents expressing a positive attitude toward wolves, and indicating likely support for wolf recovery (Bruskotter et al. 2007: 216-217).
Unfortunately, the state government assumes a decidedly anti-wolf stance. For example, during the 2010 general session of the Utah legislature, legislators passed Senate Bill 36: “The division (Division of Wildlife Resources] shall manage wolves to prevent the establishment of a viable pack in all areas of the state where the wolf is not listed as threatened or endangered . . . until the wolf is completely delisted under the Act and removed from federal control in the entire state.” Later, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) commented that recovery of wolves to Utah “will be vigorously opposed (legally and politically) by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the State of Utah” (October 2011 comments submitted by UDWR to FWS on draft Mexican Wolf recovery plan; PEER Complaint:5,6).
- Barnes, C. T. 1922. Mammals of Utah. Inland Printing Company, Kaysville, UT. 166 pp.
- Bruskotter, Jeremy T., Robert H. Schmidt, and Tara L. Teel. 2007. Are Attitudes Toward Wolves Changing? A Case Study in Utah. Biological Conservation 139:211-218.
- Durrant, S. D. 1952. Mammals of Utah: Taxonomy and Distribution. University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History Vol. 6. 549 pp.
- La Vine, K. P. 1995. Attitudes of Utah Residents Toward Gray Wolves. M.S. Thesis. Utah State University, Logan, UT. 136 pp.
- Leonard, J. A., C. Vilá, and R. K. Wayne. 2005. Legacy Lost: Genetic Variability and Population Size of Extirpated US Gray Wolves (Canis lupus). Molecular Ecology 14:9-17. http://www.environment.ucla.edu/ctr/research/ConGen/Leonard_Legacy.pdf.
- [SCB] Society for Conservation Biology. 2011. Comments by the Society for Conservation Biology – North America Section on 50 CFR Part 17 26086-‐26145 (RIN 1018–AX57) -‐ Proposed Rule To Revise the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife for the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) in the Eastern United States, Initiation of Status Reviews for the Gray Wolf and for the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon). Sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Policy and Directives Management, July 5, 2011.
- Switalski, T. Adam, Trey Simmons, Shiree L. Duncan, Andreas S. Chavez, and Robert H. Schmidt .2002. Wolves in Utah: An Analysis of Potential Impacts and Recommendations for Management. Natural Resources and Environmental Issues, Vol. X
- Image: Gunnar Ries Amphibol