In December 1990, Utah environmental groups took issue with a Dixie National Forest decision that would allow the aerial gunning of coyotes in the forest's Cedar City, Powell and Teasdale ranger districts during the winter.

The authorization was requested by local ranchers whose sheep use the forest's grazing allotments. Soon after the appeal was filed, the service's regional headquarters in Ogden issued a stay so that information could be gathered about the controversy.According to an environmental assessment signed Dec. 10, 1990, by Robert Meinrod of Dixie National Forest, the forest has nearly 2 million acres, with 22 sheep allotments on 286,657 acres. (That's what it says on Page 9. On Page 1, though, it says the proposal involves 18 allotments on 210,531 acres.)

Some 20,870 sheep are permitted on the 22 grazing allotments for 21/2 months a year, the assessment says on Page 9. "When the sheep enter the forest, there are between 30,000 and 35,000 lambs with ewes," it adds.

"Data received . . . from permittees concerning specific predator losses is incomplete," the assessment says. "In many cases, information on predator losses is not reported by permittees to the forest. Also, some predator loss information is not confirmed."

For example, a sheep's carcass may be discovered with no indication it was killed by a predator, but coyotes would be blamed "because of circumstantial evidence such as ongoing predator activity."

Over the past three years in the three ranger districts, an average of 4 percent of sheep were lost to coyotes, the assessment says. "In this three-year period (1988-90) an average of 617 sheep and lambs were known losses to predators."

At $65 per head, that loss was estimated at $40,105.

The statement about 617 known losses to predators is contradicted by a chart on the same page. It shows that over the three years, the Cedar City District had confirmed losses of 160; the Powell District, 9; the Teasdale District, 78, for a total of 247. That's the cumulative three-year total for known losses in all three districts. It is far below the 617 claimed as an average.

The average confirmed loss per year is even smaller, of course: fewer than 83. Given that at least 30,000 sheep are on the forest, the average loss is less than three-tenths of 1 percent.

The losses reported by ranchers are far higher, as might be expected. They total 1,028, 45 and 779 for the Cedar City, Powell and Teasdale districts, respectively, for a grand total of 1,852. The average per year is the 617.

According to the Forest Service, federal gunners spent $20,980 killing coyotes in Dixie National Forest last year, destroying 93 of the animals. For that year, there were only 106 confirmed sheep and lamb losses out of the minimum 30,000 sheep and lambs the assessment says were there. 1990 was the worst of the three in confirmed losses.

That 106 is nowhere near the average of 4 percent losses claimed in the assessment. It's less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the minimum number of livestock.

Accepting the ranchers' claims at face value - 744 sheep and lambs killed in the worst year, 1989 - that is still a little less than 2.5 percent. The assessment exaggerated even that dubious claimed loss in its 4 percent figure.

On Feb. 8, Robert C. Joslin, acting regional forester, wrote to Gary Macfarlane, conservation director of one of the groups, the Utah Wilderness Association; the letter was forwarded to others who appealed also.

He wrote, "We find that the quality of the analysis in the environmental analysis does not meet Forest Service or the Council of Environmental (CEQ) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and appellants raise valid points in their appeals. However, the potential loss to the livestock permittees must be considered as well."

Joslin ruled that aerial hunting can go forward on the Cedar City and Teasdale districts but not the Powell District. After all, the Powell District had three claimed losses and no confirmed losses in 1990.

Joslin's ruling makes a mockery of the NEPA process "by allowing gunning to proceed with an admittedly improper analysis," said Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, another of the appellants. He said SUWA would contact the chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., about the issue.

Rait says that because many residents of the Wasatch Front use Dixie National Forest for recreation, public hearings on the Dixie predator control program should be held in Salt Lake City.

It is wrong to kill coyotes on the basis of such questionable statistics.