SALT LAKE CITY — "Utahns want wolves. Utah wildlands and watersheds need wolves. And wolves need Utah, especially the Mexican wolf."
That's according to Western Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Kirk Robinson, who joined other activists at the state Capitol on Thursday to support bringing the endangered subspecies to Utah to boost its recovery.
The rally also came in response to letters from the governor's office and the Utah Wildlife Board, which were sent to federal wildlife officials late last year in opposition to parts of a developing Mexican wolf recovery plan that would include southern Utah as suitable habitat.
Similar rallies were held Wednesday and Thursday in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, whose governors signed a joint letter with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressing concerns with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed recovery plan, which includes provisions for the four states.
Part of the disagreement between state officials and wildlife activists comes over the Mexican wolf's historic range, which wildlife officials say is 90 percent in Mexico and the rest in southern Arizona and New Mexico, thus Mexico should take the lead on restoration efforts.
"With only 10 percent of the Mexican wolf's historic range occurring in the United States, the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's) recovery planning must operate within that parameter," states the letter from the Utah Wildlife Board. "We are concerned the service envisions a U.S.-dominated recovery solution that either minimizes or ignores Mexico's role in the effort."
Advocates, however, contend the range is split almost evenly between the two countries, and the U.S. should have a stronger influence in ensuring the recovery of the wolf, which now numbers an estimated 110.
"It us up to us, Americans, to rise to this challenge," said Allison Jones, executive director of the Wild Utah Project. "Having any species go extinct on our watch is not something we want in our legacy. These species are part of our natural heritage … We can't tell Mexico it's their problem."
Jones and Robinson said Mexico's government doesn't have the legal structure or legislative support to afford the wolf the protection it needs.
"Mexico does have a role to play in this, but it's going to be a limited role for quite a long time," Robinson said. "They don't have the same environmental protections that we do."
But Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said doubts as to Mexico's ability to handle wolf recovery efforts are "overzealous," and that Mexican officials have asked for more seats at the planning table. The next series of planning workshops on the Mexican wolf will be held in Mexico City, he said.
"There are breeding pairs of wolves in Mexico now. There are landowners and ranchers and public land areas who've expressed interest in having more wolves expanded into those areas," Sheehan said.
Sheehan said that while individual Mexican wolves may have wandered north of their historic range, the habitat and food source in southern Utah is vastly different from where the wolves once thrived along and south of the Mexican border. Putting what's left of the population in a place outside its historic range could be detrimental, he said.
"It's just not really a very sound approach to recovery planning on a highly endangered species. They evolved on the landscapes of Mexico on a different prey base," he said. "To take a species that has very few left and take a gamble to go put them in a new region where they didn't evolve in the first place could jeopardize the population of those wolves."
Sheehan said Utah officials are still willing to be part of the recovery planning process, even though they're opposed to bringing the wolf into the state. But Robinson said refusing the Mexican wolf's entry is taking a "selfish" approach in that process.
"The state of Utah is just not demonstrating big-heartedness," Robinson said. "This wildlife belongs to all citizens. It belongs to you and me; so does the wildland that they inhabit. And they are supposed to be managed for the benefit of all people as a public trust.
"So we're just going to keep demanding that this happen until it does," he said.