SALT LAKE CITY -- A state audit of how funding was appropriated for a program to keep Canadian wolves out of the state raised some concerns about performance standards, but did little to solve the political divide the issue has generated.
State auditors released a seven-page review of legislative funding efforts to delist wolves in Utah on Tuesday, even as state officials claim the effort has been a success. A wildlife conservancy executive said the results have come in spite of state efforts, not because of them.
The findings of the audit, which covered four years and approximately $800,000 in state funds, were relatively minor. The audit recommended the Division of Wildlife resources amend its existing contract with Big Game Forever to include a more current plan for how the delisting effort will be carried out, replace the up-front contract payment with payments based on agreed upon performance standards and include the original requirement of maintaining accounting records available for state review.
The Legislature appropriated $300,000 on the issue in 2013, and another $300,000 is appropriated for the 2013-2014 fiscal year with BGF, a group claiming the wolf population in the northwest is growing and thinning the herds of elk and moose.
Big Game Forever is a political action group that spun off Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. The group's website claims that before wolves were introduced in Idaho the population of elk was 20,000. Now that population is 1,700.
The same trend is shown in Yellowstone Park, where the population of elk was also estimated to be at approximately 20,000 before wolves were introduced in the park. It said the elk herd is now down to 6,500.
"One of the things not brought out in the audit are the results of the money we spent. It's been unbelievably successful," Michael Styler, executive director for the Department of Natural Resources, said of the program. "The money we have spent has been well spent. The results are far more than I dream we could have accomplished with that."
Kirk Robinson, executive director of Western Wildlife Conservancy, has a different take on state spending to delist wolves. He said there is no evidence that BGF's efforts or state funding has had any direct impact on keeping the wolves out of Utah. He said there is actually evidence the big game group lobbied against the effort to delist wolves, before they took the contract with the state's Division of Wildlife Resources.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, has been outspoken against the program and said the Legislature appropriated money for a cause the DWR didn't ask to have funded. He worried the state doesn't have enough accountability for how non-profits handle state funds.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, asked Styler if the DWR has asked for funding and was told no and said it would have been inappropriate to push for funding, not included in the governor's budget.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the state appropriates money to non-profits all the time.
"The bottom line here is this is a political issue. A lot of people don't want the wolves delisted and a lot of people want the wolves delisted. That's a political discussion we need to debate," Niederhauser said.