By Brian Maffly
Legislative leaders on Monday ordered an audit to examine how a political-action organization has spent Utah taxpayers’ money in an ongoing effort to wrest control of wolf management from federal hands.
Big Game Forever, a Utah-based nonprofit that spun off Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife in 2010, has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money during the past four years to evict the gray wolf from the endangered species list. But the group’s founders Don Peay and Ryan Benson have not disclosed where the money goes in their reports to the Legislature and to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
State auditors have already made informal inquiries into how the group spent a $300,000 appropriation for fiscal year 2013. But because Big Game Forever “commingles” its funds from multiple sources, it might not be possible to determine exactly what Utah taxpayers’ money bought, according to Legislative Auditor General John Schaff.
“How do I know that receipt is for state money versus funds coming from other sources?” Schaff told the legislative audit subcommittee Monday. “The problem is this is a private company. We have authority to look at state funding. We don’t have authority to look at funding from other sources.”
This did not sit well with Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who requested the audit.
“I would like to see accountability on the half million that has been spent. I would like to see where that money went and for what purposes,” Davis said.
Meanwhile, Big Game Forever is poised to receive a second $300,000 state appropriation for fiscal year 2014. Davis argued that DWR, which manages the contract with Big Game Forever, should withhold the money pending the release of the audit.
The audit subcommittee, however, lacks the authority to do that, but some lawmakers may ask DWR to sit on the money.
The panel did ask Schaff to find out what other states, if any, are funding Big Game Forever, how much they contribute and to explore how it will spend the next $300,000.
During the legislative session, Peay told lawmakers he was going to use the money to block federal attempts to “introduce” Mexican gray wolves into southern Utah, even though there is scant evidence such a plan is afoot.
Schaff said he intends to also examine how Big Game Forever spent two earlier $100,000 DWR grants in pursuit of “legal and legislative solutions to return management for gray wolves to the state of Utah.” The grants — from state general-fund monies, not from fees on sportsmen as previously indicated — required the group to keep accounting records “for state review if requested.”
A DWR official said the agency had never requested to review those records.
Big Game Forever executive Benson, a Salt Lake City lawyer, has not responded to several requests for comment.
Last week, he submitted a 120-page report http://wildlife.utah.gov/wolf/ to DWR summarizing Big Game Forever’s “accomplishments” arising from the $300,000, but it shed little light on its spending other than to attribute various amounts in five broad categories. It did say the group used the appropriation to obtain “matching dollars,” but it provided no numbers.
“Normally you report how much and where it came from,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, another critic of the appropriation. “Maybe I’m missing something. I have worked for non-profits my whole life. You get paid as you submit expenses or as you complete the work.”
One of the appropriation’s chief backers, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, welcomed the audit.
“I think they will find the money was spent very well,” he said.
The feds have long signalled an intent to delist the gray wolf from federal protection across the nation, so critics like Davis wonder why Utah should divert money to a politically connected special-interest group to fight a battle that appears won.
The Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed delisting last month, paving the way for states to manage wolf populations.
Wolves were exterminated from Utah by 1930, but they are expected to return should the populations in the Northern Rockies continue to expand into their historic range to the south.
This article was published in the Salt Lake Tribune.
The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers. Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.
Below are a few suggestions for ensuring your message gets through clearly-your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few key points, so don’t try to use all of these. If you need additional help or want someone to review your letter before you send it, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start by thanking the paper for their coverage of this issue. This makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
Convey your outrage at the idea of Big Game Forever receiving taxpayer funds to undermine the Endangered Species Act and spread misinformation about wolves while important programs like education are underfunded.
Tell readers that the funding was recommended by Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who received $6,500 last year in campaign donations from Don Peay and Ryan Benson, the two men requesting the $300,000.
Inform readers that, at last count, just 75 Mexican gray wolves, including three breeding pairs, survived in the wild. Yet Don Peay wants to strip protections from this critically endangered animal.
Stress that the majority of Utah residents support wolves and understand their importance. In Utah polling by Bruskotter et al., Utah State University, 74% of respondents displayed a positive attitude toward wolves.
Talk about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you. If you’re a grandmother wanting your grandchildren to have the opportunity to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.
Describe the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife. Wildlife biologists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams — just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
Keep your letter brief, between 150-200 words.
Provide your name, address, occupation, and phone number; your full address, occupation, and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
You can email your letter to email@example.com
The Salt Lake Tribune, Brian Maffly, July 2, 2013