Letter from Utah — From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

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In November 2015, in order to learn more about the circumstances surrounding 914F’s killing, I traveled to Beaver, a town of 3,000 people three hours south of Salt Lake City. Natalie Ertz, the executive director of an Idaho nonprofit called WildLands Defense, joined me. Ertz drove me to town in her dented Honda SUV, up a rugged, snow-covered road at the edge of Fishlake National Forest. After about an hour, she parked without a word and stepped out of the vehicle. Tall and lanky, with shoulder-length brown hair peeking out from beneath a stocking cap, she led me up a hill. Glancing at the GPS on my cell phone, she stopped and placed a bouquet of freshly picked sage on the snow. This was the kill site, where 914F was shot almost a year earlier.

Ertz’s connection to the animal was personal. An experienced wolf tracker, she was one of the last documented people to encounter 914F at the Grand Canyon the previous year. She described calling to the wolf at dusk from the ponderosa forests of the Kaibab Plateau: “She howled back. It was like speaking with nature itself.” Only weeks later, 914F lay dead on this remote mountainside.

Photograph of the aftermath of a coyote hunt by the author

Photograph of the aftermath of a coyote hunt by the author

After we paid our respects, we headed to Beaver to attend its annual coyote-killing contest, in which cash prizes are awarded to the teams that kill the most animals in a single day. The contest is one of dozens of such events held across Utah, ostensibly because the animals pose a threat to elk, deer, and domestic livestock. An advertisement on Facebook for the previous year’s contest depicted the hunters’ adversary, under which a caption read there will be blood.

Ertz and I hoped to find Blackburn and Hansen, both of whom lived in Beaver, at the contest check-in, when the carcasses would be tallied and the winners announced. We parked in front of the Renegade Lounge, one of the few bars in town, and peered through binoculars into a dark alley. Around us, the signs of gun stores and bait-and-tackle shops glowed faintly in the falling snow. Soon, mud-spattered trucks began to pull in. One had a coyote tail affixed to the antenna, Davy Crockett–style. We took this as our signal to head in, following a thin trail of blood into the alley, where a dozen men wearing full camouflage stood before a wooden frame that was illuminated by halogen work lamps. Two game hooks dangled from the horizontal crosspiece; from each hung the carcass of a coyote.

The proceedings moved with grim efficiency. The teams brought their carcasses to a man wielding a large hunting knife. He punched a crude incision in each animal’s shin and passed the hook through, suspending one bloody carcass after another while a second man recorded the weights on a clipboard. By the end, more than a hundred dead coyotes — the majority of them pups and juveniles — were brought in by about fifty participating hunters. While a large adult coyote can reach forty-five pounds, few of those dangling in rigor mortis weighed more than fifteen or twenty. It was hard to see how creatures so small could be mistaken for a northern gray wolf, an animal easily four times their size.

Some consider Utah’s persecution of coyotes to be not only an ill-conceived and inhumane policy — they see it as an extralegal means of keeping wolves out of the state. “The Utah political establishment is united against wolves, almost to a person,” Robinson, the conservationist, who has worked in the field for two decades, said. Though the state hasn’t had a confirmed wolf pack in nearly a century, lawmakers have dedicated a substantial amount of energy and money to keeping them at bay. In 2010, they passed the Wolf Management Act, to “prevent the establishment of a viable pack in all areas of the state where the wolf is not listed as threatened or endangered.” The law requires state officials to call in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove any wolves discovered in the roughly 81,500 square miles of land — 96 percent of the state — where they are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, state officials are fighting the F.W.S.’s efforts to expand the recovery zone of Mexican gray wolves up from New Mexico and Arizona to southern Utah and Colorado. The Utah Wildlife Board, an influential seven-member council that sets regulations for the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources, has accused the federal agency of populating its ranks with non-neutral, pro-wolf scientists. “Promoting or fostering Mexican wolf recovery in Utah and Colorado,” board chairman John Bair wrote to Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, “is simply bad policy, bad science, bad for the Mexican wolf, and bad for the states strapped with the burden of hosting protected wolf populations.”

Utah’s anti-wolf campaign is led by two well-funded lobbying groups, Big Game Forever and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, both headed by a wealthy hunting enthusiast named Don Peay. He has made it his mission to keep wolves out of the state. (Some call him the Don of Wildlife.) Peay’s ill will is indicative of the antifederal sentiment that has been spreading across the American West since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Seventies and Eighties, with Utah at its center. The state is an incubator of ambitious legislation to erode federal authority, most notably the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which seeks the return to the state of 31 million acres of federal land (including Arches, Zion, and Canyonlands National Parks). And while President-elect Donald Trump has been vague about his stance on public lands, his election is sure to embolden supporters of the lands-transfer movement. In this politically charged climate, shooting a wolf is not simply machismo — it is a decisively antifederal act.

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