The line in the sand has been drawn and those for and against Proposition 5 are beginning to move into position in anticipation of the November vote.
Wednesday, four members of the seven-member Utah Wildlife Board held an afternoon press conference in which they announced the board's unanimous support of the proposed change in the Utah Constitution.Immediately after, the Utah Voting Rights Coalition, which is opposing the proposition, challenged the board's right to make such an announcement. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah then announced it would vigorously review whether the board overstepped the law.
"Our unanimous decision to support this important legislation is in direct response to powerful threats made by the Washington, D.C., based Humane Society of the United States and other groups," said Max Morgan, chairman of the wildlife board.
"These threats, well-documented by Utah's media, are targeted at the very heart of the process and system that has been so overwhelmingly successful in increasing Utah's wildlife to a level of abundance never before known."
If passed, Proposition 5 would change the constitution to require a three-fourths majority "yes" vote, instead of a simple majority, to change laws governing Utah's wildlife.
The UVRC is questioning the board's right to make such an announcement without seeking public input first. Also in question is whether the board could make such an announcement without first consulting its regional advisory boards.
Morgan said the process and the endorsement were cleared through the Attorney General's Office prior to the announcement.
Proposition 5 would, said Don Peay, one of the main forces behind the move, give Utah's 700-plus species added protection from outside special-interest groups or politically motivated efforts that would be detrimental to wildlife habitat, health and populations.
The move to change Utah's law came after special-interest groups were successful in changing wildlife laws in such states as California, Washington and Oregon. Such moves have been seen as detrimental to sound wildlife management.
In recent years there has been a strong push to stop the hunting of cougars and bears in Utah.
The board pointed out that Utah wildlife has prospered in recent years. Citing figures from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, it pointed out that since the early 1900s, the state's mountain lion population has increased from fewer than 1,000 to a current population of more than 3,000; that elk, once nearly extinct in Utah, now number more than 60,000; that deer numbers now exceed 300,000; and that wild sheep, nearly wiped out by uranium miners in the 1950s and 1960s, now number more than 2,500.
"We endorse Proposition 5 because all wildlife is currently under attack from special interest, loss of habitat and human encroachment on all sides," said Collin Allan, vice chairman of the board.
Peay has argued that well-funded animal rights groups can come into Utah and wage a media war on Utah's wildlife management programs, a war he said that would cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to counter.
Instead of putting the money into a war of words, "it would be far better to put the money on the ground, into wildlife projects where it can do some good," he said.
"The undisputed key to the future of Utah's wildlife is preservation of habitat. More than $500 million was spent on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Utah last year. More than $25 million is spent annually to protect Utah wildlife and Utah wildlife habitat. In officially supporting Proposition 5, we want to emphasize that without this financial dedication there would be far less wildlife for Utah families to enjoy," said Brenda Freeman, a member of the board.
The current wildlife board, appointed by Gov. Mike Leavitt, was established two years ago to replace what was then two separate boards.
It is expected that between now and the Nov. 3 vote that both sides will wage a heated media battle before the voters.