Wildlife in the state of Utah is once again in the cross hairs of a great debate. Proposition 5 is drawing increasing cover age and comment in the media, yet there is an underlying assumption being made that deserves a serious second look.
As many know by now, Prop. 5 asks voters if they want to rewrite the Utah Constitution to say that anyone who tries to use the citizen initiative process to change the state's wildlife regulations must secure at least 67 percent of the vote in 20 of Utah's 29 counties. Initiatives on any other subject will continue to require just 51 percent of the vote.Supporters of this proposition say it is necessary to maintain wildlife management as the purview of professionals, who use science and sound biological principals to determine management goals. All others, it is said, are emotional "extremists."
The point I want to make here is that it is incorrect to assume that wildlife management is currently determined by dispassionate, professional biologists. Though biologists with the state Division of Wildlife Resources do make recommendations about policies, these are recommendations only. And this is only the beginning of a process that is as political as it is marked by self-interest.
Wildlife management recommendations of the DWR are first presented to the public for evaluation at Regional Wildlife Advisory Council meetings. These are held roughly monthly in locations around the state. During these meetings the councils take citizen input regarding the Division's recommendations. They then vote to either accept or reject them. If the latter, the councils propose and vote on a recommendation of their own and pass on what remains as their official position to the state Wildlife Board. That board then either accepts the amended council recommendation or the original Division proposal, and the policy is implemented. This is a process that is inherently political, though it attempts to be fair by including the input of both citizens and representatives of various viewpoints.
The Wildlife Board, the group that makes the final management decisions regarding Utah's wildlife, is a panel of individuals appointed by the governor. These people are generally not wildlife professionals, but doctors, ranchers, retired business owners, etc. who are politically acceptable to the power structure that selects them. They are also currently, for the most part, hunters, with what must be assumed are natural biases toward a "consumptive" point of view. It's my contention that because the current state power structure is heavily weighted toward legislators friendly with, or even a part of, agricultural interests, that these are the de facto managers of Utah's public wildlife resources.
Unfortunately, even the best science of the Division of Wildlife Resources is developed to achieve non-natural ends. That is, to determine a mysterious, optimum number of each managed species, and then to defy and manipulate nature in order to reach that goal.
But the politics have just begun. Consider the following examples: We are currently beginning a third year of what even Division biologists call a mountain lion "over-harvest." The numbers of permits issued for each hunting unit are intended not to maintain but to reduce mountain lion numbers with the hope of artificially increasing deer populations. This decision is driven by the desire to improve the opportunities for deer hunters. Does this sound like biology or politics?
Or consider the proposal for a special additional bison hunt in the Henry Mountains of southeastern Utah. We are told that the bison population there is currently above the "recommended" number. And how is this number determined? Through compromise with cattle grazers who have permits for the public lands on which the bison live. Again, biology or politics?
I want to stress that the Division of Wildlife Resources is doing an extraordinarily good job considering their difficult situation. They operate in an established, powerful culture that allows little leeway in the matters of management. Despite the fact that their operational funding is tied to the number of hunting tags their product can support, Division biologists consistently make conservative recommendations concerning harvest numbers.
Self-interest and politics are dominant players in wildlife management in Utah today. Raw, natural science is a poor stepchild. Prop. 5 would make it far more difficult for those with opinions different from those in power to make their voices heard. Utahns who believe that all of us should participate in the management of this public resource should vote no on Prop. 5.