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Wildlife advocates chided state government leaders in Salt Lake City on Thursday for trying to keep land out of a potential recovery zone for Mexican gray wolves, an endangered species.
Organizations advocating for the wolves also held news conferences and rallies in the capital cities of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. They say governors are spreading misinformation in a recent letter to the federal government.
About 25 supporters showed up in Salt Lake City, holding signs that read, "Utah Wants Wolves" and "Utah Needs Wolves."
Allison Jones, director of the Wild Utah Project, said governors should have consulted with more legal experts and scientists before sending a joint letter in which they claimed science does not show the animals have lived north of Interstate 40. That highway runs through New Mexico and Arizona.
"The debate when it comes to wolves is too often underlain with myth and folklore, none of which has been substantiated by the science," Jones said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stood behind the letter.
"It would be irresponsible for the federal government to introduce a species of wolf to a region, such as Utah, where it has not historically lived," Herbert's spokesman Jon Cox said in a statement. "Such an action could significantly harm the state's wildlife, quality of life and economy."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife last year decided to list the Mexican wolf, a smaller subspecies of the gray wolf, as endangered. Federal wildlife officials estimate there are 110 Mexican wolves in the wild, many straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border.
A proposed recovery plan from federal officials for the animal also known as "lobo" is likely a couple of years away, said Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Scientists, state officials and Mexican government representatives recently held a meeting in Arizona to discuss the issue. Two more meetings are planned for this year, including one in Mexico City.
The Utah Wildlife Board recently sent a letter echoing many of the same points the governors made. The board said trying to lure the wolves to Utah would harm the species because the animals would hybridize with northern gray wolves.
Board members said the state could lose millions of dollars that come from hunting permits because the wolves would prey on deer, elk and moose in some of the state's finest hunting terrain.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission this week passed a resolution opposing any possible move by the federal government to introduce Mexican gray wolves to the state, arguing the animals aren't native to the state and would threaten livestock and big game animals.
Sheehan said recovery of the Mexican gray wolf should focus on the animal's natural and historic lands in Mexico, allowing it to eat what it has for generations and live in habitat it's familiar with.
"I don't fault people for wanting to have wolves in Utah: It is a historic species in the West," Sheehan said. "But that doesn't mean we change the real science out there on the Mexican wolf to fabricate ways for how and why they should live here or used to live here."
Ty Markham of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance pointed to theology as justification for opening southern Utah lands for Mexican gray wolf recovery. Her group believes the wolves play a key part in the "divine web of life" that needs to be protected for future generations.
Jones said arguing over the precise historical habitat of the animal should take a back seat to how and where the species can best recover in today's world.