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Wolves are advised not to linger in far northern Utah now that Congress has removed Endangered Species Act protection for the predators in their Northern Rockies recovery zone.

They are legally welcome everywhere else in Utah, though, if they can get here and breed — regardless of what state officials want.

The status shift, approved in a budget bill last month, allows Utah to kill any wolves that pair up to create a pack in its federally designated recovery zone — the mountainous corner of the state east of Interstate 15 and north of Interstates 80 and 84 — as the Legislature directed last winter.

"It kind of becomes our marching orders," said Kevin Bunnell, a wildlife biologist and mammals program coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "State law at this point is that we remove those."

He said the state likely would enlist expert trappers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services when necessary.

That doesn't mean wolves cannot breed and thrive elsewhere in Utah. Federal protection remains everywhere else, in the places where they aren't considered legally recovered or even present.

Those spots include the forests around the UintaMountains and a wild swath along eastern Utah's Book Cliffs. Wolves are off the endangered list only in the Northern Rockies recovery zone, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says transplants to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho helped grow the population to more than 1,600 animals occupying nearly all suitable habitat in the region.

Previously, Utah could seek a wolf's killing only when it threatened livestock.

Reports of wandering lone wolves in Utah, including some confirmations and a couple of cases of livestock predation last year in Rich County, have become steadier since the 1990s reintroductions 200-plus miles to the north. Experts say the wolf's newly vulnerable status in the recovery zone scarcely affects the odds — slim but plausible for the near future, by some accounts —that compatible male and female wanderers will hook up in eastern Utah and start a pack in still-protected territory.

Idahoans and Montanans will resume legal hunting to thin the packs this year. Wyoming cannot because it lacks a state plan that federal authorities say is sufficient to maintain the species. That leaves southwest Wyoming as a possible back door into eastern Utah. State wildlife managers have said it's only a matter of time, and wolf advocates agree.

"I'm fairly optimistic that wolves will come into Utah and make it beyond I-80 to the Uintas," said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy in Salt Lake City. "So I don't think much has changed in that regard."

He supports wolf recovery in Utah as a component of healthy ecosystems and says it should be encouraged in places such as the Book Cliffs, well away from all but a few ranches.

It's not likely to happen soon, said Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has managed Northern Rockies wolf recovery for nearly a quarter century before retiring this week. He likens lone wolf dispersers to spokes on a wheel, each one spaced farther apart the farther they get from the center.

The remote, forested patches of Utah don't compare to central Idaho, where there are 13 million acres of contiguous public forests with little fragmentation. Still, wolves have strayed from Montana and central Idaho to take up residence in smaller enclaves of eastern Washington and Oregon.

"They're not going to naturally colonize Utah in the near future," Bangs said. "That doesn't mean they can't get a foothold," though reintroduction would work better if Utah wanted wolves. That way, he said, they could go where there's the least conflict.

No political appetite exists for such a program, with legislators seeking to kill packs before they grow. Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler told a legislative committee last session that wolves are indiscriminate killing machines akin to a "modern T. rex." Last week, he modified that slightly with a nod to the predator's stealth, intelligence and cooperative hunting.

"I misspoke. They're more like velociraptors," he said in reference to the coldblooded killers of "Jurassic Park."

A state wolf plan adopted in 2005 included survey results indicating 57 percent of urban Utahns and 42 percent of rural Utahns would like to see wolves in the state.

It's a frightening prospect to Styler, a former farmer and rural Millard County commissioner, if it happens while Endangered Species Act protections still limit state control in most of Utah.

"We have had wolves wander through [Utah] without causing a lot of damage," Styler said. "If we started getting packs established without management control, there is not enough wilderness-type area here to support packs of wolves without immediately moving on to livestock."

The state plan calls for no more than two packs in Utah, though that was written with the expectation that federal protections would be removed statewide.

The reality now is that if wolves can quietly pass through the state's legal no-wolf zone in the north and start packs south of I-80 in any numbers, they are home free.

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