SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative audit concludes Utah spent $800,000 in wolf "delisting" efforts over the past three years in a system of expenditures that lacks appropriate safeguards and fails to direct how the money would be most effective.
Specifically, the audit found that the bulk of that money awarded to Big Game Forever was delivered via a contract that initially raised concerns with state purchasing officials and did not provide state accounting of how the money was spent.
"What our concern was is there should have been a clear opportunity or statement that the funds have been accounted for," said Utah's Legislative Auditor General John Schaff. "We're really saying that the mechanism should have existed. We're not saying there wasn't sufficient oversight."
Big Game Forever, founded by Don Peay and Ryan Benson, is a nonprofit organization formed to bolster healthy big game populations and stop wolf expansion.
Although there have been no documented wolves existing as a pack in Utah since the 1930s, big game hunters, ranchers and state wildlife managers are not eager for their return.
The state Division of Wildlife Resources has adopted a wolf management plan should they return, and state leaders have been pushing to have the animal removed from its status as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal to delist the animal is up for public comment through Oct. 28.
Auditors said the problem with the anti-wolf expenditures is that they lacked clear legislative direction, stressing, however, that no contracting or procurement laws were violated.
"There was nothing more than an end of year report," said audit manager Tim Osterstock, to describe what was accomplished and how the money was spent.
The audit found that the fiscal year 2013 contract was crafted absent identifying Big Game's state-related expenses. As a result, auditors said private donations were commingled with state money.
The office had the organization detail how the money was spent, with 65 percent of it spent on consulting fees, 13 percent on federal lobbying and another 10 percent on video production.
Afterward, one of the more vocal critics of spending said there's still too little information available.
"The main complaint was that there just wasn't enough information there and not enough information was required by the Legislature to really tell how the money was spent," said Kirk Robinson, executive director of Western Wildlife Conservancy. "They are claiming it was all legal, but the pubic does not get to know too much about how that money was used."
Greg Sheehan, director of the state Division of Wildlife Resources, said the money spent was a good investment and a success.
"There were some good recommendations in the audit, some things we can do differently," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said it concerned him that the money was given to an organization without more documentation.
"To me that is just a gift to a 501(c)4 and really no accountability for what they're doing," Davis said.
But Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, said it is not unusual for the Utah Legislature and state agencies to give money to nonprofit organizations.
"The reality here is that we appropriate to nonprofits all the time. There's a lot in health and human services. I think the bottom line is this is a political issue," he said. "There's people who don't want the wolves delisted and a lot of people who want the wolves delisted."
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said the audit pointed out a failure of state spending and appropriate assurances of how those dollars should directed.
"Obviously this is about money, spending and accountability," she said.
The audit will also be presented at Wednesday's meeting of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
Contributing: Benjamin Wood