A new coalition, comprised of some of the state's largest sportsmen organizations, officially kicked off its drive to "protect Utah's wildlife and the biological integrity of the state's proven system of wildlife management."

Toward that end, said Don Peay, spokesman for the Utahns for Wildlife Heritage and Conservation, the group will aggressively work to win voter approval of a resolution to amend the Utah Constitution.The resolution (SJR10), passed by the Utah Legislature, will allow Utahns to vote to ratify a state constitutional amendment on the November 1998 general election ballot.

If it passes, the amendment would require that a "super majority" or two-thirds voter approval would be required to restrict or ban wildlife hunting.

At a news conference on Thursday, Peay said the UWHC is "concerned about recent trends in surrounding states where ballot initiatives have been used by animal rights and welfare special interest groups to strip wildlife managers' ability to manage based on sound scientific biology."

Among the coalition members are the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Utah Wildlife Federation, Utah Landowners Wildlife Alliance, Utah Farm Bureau and the Utah Mule Deer Foundation. Peay said there are more than 60,000 members within the coalition.

In the ensuing months the group hopes to raise between $300,000 and $500,000 to help make Utahns aware of the amendment.

Those critical of the amendment argue that by raising the "majority" vote it impedes citizens' rights to participate in the democratic process. They also argue that such an amendment would be unconstitutional.

Richard G. Wilkins, professor of law at Brigham Young University, spoke at the press conference and said the Utah proposal does not discriminate against any "identifiable class" and that "voters need not fear any lawsuits being brought by any civil rights groups."

The UWHC said the amendment would protect Utah's proven wildlife management system, which is led by trained, professional biologists; sustain abundant wildlife populations; and protect Utahns' privilege to enjoy wildlife in the outdoors.

"In the past eight years, 11 ballot initiative elections have been held in surrounding Western states, all backed or initiated by narrowly focused and well-funded animal rightists," said Peay. "These emotion-based elections have thrown caution to the wind and relegated responsible biological wildlife management to the back burner."

He pointed out that a story in a California paper reported that the state's bighorn sheep population was being threatened by an increase in the mountain lion population after an initiative in California stopped lion hunting. Similar problems are being faced in Washington and Oregon.

Michelle Todd, a spokeswoman for the UWHC, which operates a wildlife artistry business, told the group that "wildlife plays a strong role in Utah's family tradition and values. Wildlife is the cornerstone of my family. As a mother who enjoys Utah's wildlife and outdoor opportunities with my husband and children, I know that our wildlife heritage is worth preserving."

The information campaign will begin this summer.