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Politics of Wildlife: It’s Up For Grabs



Depending upon whom you listen to, it is either an effort to undermine the voting public’s rights or a great move to protect the tradition of Utah living.

It is either a plan financed by national, rightwing firearms and hunting groups, or a maneuver bankrolled by out of state left-wing animal-rights activists.

It is either a movement to save Utah’s wildlife from liberals or a movement to save Utah’s wildlife from conservatives. Huh?

If you’re confused by Proposition 5 that will be on the November 3 ballot, it’s because you’ve heard too much rhetoric. Distilled and simplified, here it is: If passed, Prop 5 would mean that the course citizens can take to change law outside the Legislature, called the ballot initiative, would no longer hold for wildlife issues. Unlike all other issues, where a simple majority would make a ballot initiative law, Prop 5 requires that a supermajority of two-thirds be required.

Recently, the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission voted that Prop 5 should not become law because it puts too much power in the hands of a minority.

In Utah, and 27 other states, citizens may change state law through ballot initiatives. Although these initiatives have been rare in Utah, they are common in California, where about 10 years ago, citizens voted to outlaw cougar hunting.

That’s the kind of thing that drives the folks over at Utah Wildlife Heritage and Conservation crazy. They say they don’t want East Coast animal rights crazies coming in to Utah and passing ballot initiatives that would outlaw hunting deer, elk, cougar, bear and even outlaw fishing. That’s why they’re supporting Prop 5.

On the other hand, the Utah Voting Rights Coalition, says that Prop 5 robs Utahns of their rights to govern themselves, if they so choose, by ballot initiative on wildlife issues. Further, the Voting Rights group points out that it is the Wildlife Heritage group that is accepting large sums of money from national organizations to push Prop 5, which would amend the state constitution.

In some Western states, political powers have been at odds with the general public on wildlife management and that has led to the ballot initiative issue. In Utah, it’s no secret that the Leavitt administration has had its share of fish and game controversies. The most notable is the Whirling Disease fiasco that has swirled around the Leavitt fish farms in Southern Utah.

After the governor’s family fish farm was cited for illegally transferring quarantined trout, the enforcement arm of the State Division of Wildlife Resources was gutted. The governor claimed he sold his stake in the family business to his brothers and had no conflict when his DWR director pushed out 33 game officials. But it wasn’t difficult for critics to connect the reorganization of DWR with the Leavitt Whirling Disease debacle.

The Leavitt administration has also come under fire for its policies on deer hunting and cougar hunting. The governor appoints the Utah Wildlife Board to set hunting policies. It is made up largely of agriculture and hunting interests, critics have argued. No wildlife advocates or environmentalists sit on the panel.

Two years ago, that led to the formation of a small group, called the Cougar Coalition, that wanted to see changes in the way mountain lions and bears were hunted. Presently, cougars can be hunted with dogs over a six-month season, usually in the winter with hunters on snowmobiles. A record of 576 legal cougar kills were recorded in 1996-’97.

Another unpopular but legal hunting technique in Utah is bear beating, where hunters leave out food, like pizza, and wait with loaded rifles for a bear to sniff it out.

But the mere existence of the Cougar Coalition and the talk that a ballot initiative might be the only way to bring sanity to Utah’s mountain lion hunt may have sparked the Wildlife Heritage group into existence.

Last winter, the Utah Legislature passed Prop 5, making it eligible for the ballot. Prop 5 didn’t just pass, it sailed through the Legislature, said Craig Axford of the Voting Rights Coalition.

This would be the most restrictive kind of law in the nation, Axford said in a telephone interview. It’s a frivolous reason to amend the constitution.

Axford, who started the Cougar Coalition, which later morphed into the Predator Education Fund, argues that the Wildlife Heritage group pushing Prop 5 is using scare tactics to spread its message. In no state have restrictions on deer or elk hunting, or fishing been put on the ballot as an initiative, he explained. Axford has made a formal complaint to the State Election Office about what he calls the knowing dissemination of misinformation by the Wildlife Heritage group.

Further, Axford said that in its first financial report to the Lt. Governor’s office, the Wildlife Heritage-Prop 5 group reported that $28,000 of $60,000 in contributions came from out of state hunting organizations, while the Voting Rights group has taken little from outside organizations.

In order to get an initiative on the ballot, it takes 70,000 signatures from at least 20 of Utah’s 29 counties. It’s ridiculous to say that out-of-staters can make Utahns do that, Axford said of Prop 5 proponents, who warn of outsiders pushing hunting restrictions down the throats of Utahns.

But Chris Carling, who represents the Wildlife Heritage group couldn’t disagree more. The proven track record that these organizations have in other states, we aren’t going to wait for them to come in and beat us up before we react. The public can be forced to vote on wildlife measures when they aren’t well informed.

The impediment to the ballot initiative on wildlife issues protects the present system, which is guided by professionals at DWR with public input to the Utah Wildlife Board, Carling noted. If the public or special interests want to override the professional manager’s and board’s decisions, there must be a compelling reason. And we concede that sometimes that could happen. But it’s too easy to manipulate the public to a 51 percent majority.

Despite controversies over the size of the deer herd and the Whirling Disease fiasco, which could eventually cripple Utah’s fishery, Carling says DWR has a very good history of wildlife management. From the early part of the century when herds were down, wildlife in Utah is now in good condition, he said. He pointed to deer, elk and moose, as well as turkey, chucker and fish, among successful management of game species.

People who are concerned with (hunting) tradition, don’t want that taken away, Carling said. That’s because the system in place is based on science, not emotion.

But the setting of cougar and bear permits is based on anything but science, say critics like Axford. If recent history shows anything, it is that DWR scientists have to toe the political line of the conservative Republican Legislature and the Leavitt administration.

Things, however, could change. Axford points to studies that show a changing Utah population. The Demographics of this state are changing. If 5 million people live along the Wasatch by 2020, they might not see the value of bear baiting. Prop 5 is taking a check on the Legislature and using it as a check on the people. u