Audit: Contracts for anti-wolf groups didn't safeguard tax dollars
State wildlife agency gives anti-wolf advocate $300,000 a year.
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Utah wildlife officials failed to safeguard taxpayer dollars while contracting with private anti-wolf organizations that work to sway federal policy, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

The influential hunting group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and its spinoff Big Game Forever (BGF) have been awarded $800,000 during the past four years to help strip the gray wolf of federal protections.

It remains unclear how BGF director Ryan Benson spent the $300,000 awarded last year, although nearly two-thirds went to his private business in the form of "consulting fees," according to the new audit.

Some $40,000 was spent on Washington, D.C., lobbyist Tim Rupli; $30,000 on video production, $16,000 on "software" and $11,000 on trade shows.

Particularly troubling to Legislative Auditor General John Schaff was the Department of Natural Resource's insistence that BGF be paid the full contract amounts each year before completing any work, and that Benson "commingled" the state money with funds from outside sources.

Last year, BGF hired two lobbyists, raising the possibility that the Legislature was providing taxpayer money for the group to lobby lawmakers for more money for BGF. This would be illegal — but there is no way to be sure this didn't happen, Schaff told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.

"Disbursement of funds was not based on performance, [but] rather on the hope of progressing toward the desired outcome," auditors wrote. "The upfront payment, lack of accounting review and lack of a current-year plan lead us to believe that the contract lacks sufficient safeguards."

The money flowed to the groups to lobby the federal government in recent years as officials pondered when and how to hand wolf management to the states. The reintroduction of wolves in the region of Yellowstone National Park had been so successful that the gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in late 2011 by congressional action for the three-state recovery zone that included a small piece of Utah.

Since then, hunters have killed at least 1,200 wolves outside Yellowstone, mostly in Montana.

And this year, to the dismay of environmentalists and wildlife advocates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a nationwide delisting, while keeping the Mexican gray wolf on the list as a threatened subspecies.

Department of Natural Resources director Mike Styler pointed to these developments as proof the groups' lobbying efforts are working and should continue.

"It's in the interest of the state of Utah to have management authority on all wildlife species," Styler told lawmakers. "The results of the money we spent were unbelievably successful."

But critics point out that the latest round of money was awarded at a time when delisting was all but assured.

The Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) first awarded grants worth $100,000 in both 2010 and 2011, but with no written direction outlining the scope of work. The awards came with a requirement that the organization keep records of how it spent the money, but DWR never asked to review them.

In 2012, the agency upped the award to $300,000 at the Legislature's direction and put out a request for proposals that was tailor-made for Big Game Forever, according to the audit.

A contract was written to ensure a more transparent process, yet DWR dropped the requirement for the groups to maintain financial records. Another $300,000 allocation followed in 2013.

"To make the contract not as reportable as the previous two, that concerns me," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. "That's just a gift to a 501(c)4 [nonprofit] with no accountability to what they are doing with our $600,000 in state monies."

Auditors recommended the agency revise the contract to impose such a requirement and require the contractor to provide a spending plan, and that the agency make payments in installments based on performance.

DWR director Greg Sheehan said there is nothing unusual about paying contractors upfront, and state law precludes paying contractors according to performance-based outcomes where lobbying is involved.

Don Peay, a founder of SFW and BGF, persuaded lawmakers to make the most recent $300,000 appropriation on the premises that federal wildlife officials intend to plant Mexican gray wolves in southern Utah and that such a move would destroy the region's wildlife. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have denied such a plan is in the works, although some government scientists believe parts of Utah should be included in the imperiled subspecies' recovery area.

Mexican wolves have been reintroduced in Arizona since the 1990s, but the population remains tiny and the subspecies' recovery remains far from certain.

bmaffly@sltrib.com