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Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife founder Don Peay said Saturday he thinks wolves are "cool" and his organization would welcome some of the big predators into Utah if they could be managed correctly and honestly.

But the outspoken wolf critic told attendees at the 16th annual Stegner Center Symposium at the University of Utah that if something isn't done about controlling predators, citizens won't be able to hunt and view big mammals in the western United States in 20 years.

Peay participated in an often-heated panel discussion with Wild Utah Project biologist Allison Jones, Division of Wildlife Resources Director Jim Karpowitz, Wildlife Services Utah Director Mike Linnell and Western Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Kirk Robinson.

"I hope the environmentalist legacy is not to destroy the Western wildlife model and populations," said Peay, who charged groups that reintroduced wolves back into the West with being dishonest.

He said he could support original agreements to bring 450 wolves into Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, but maintained wolf proponents ignored those agreements and allowed populations to expand to far larger numbers. Peay hopes bills in Congress will force the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

Biologists say wolves in the West number 1,651 in 244 packs, down from 1,733 in 2009.

Robinson accused Utah wildlife managers of having a strong prejudice against predators. He said wolf critics such as Peay argue that the big predators are decimating wildlife populations in places such as Wyoming. But in 2009, he said, the population of elk in parts of that state was 108,000, when the stated management objective was for 83,000 elk.

"Don [Peay] paints pictures of wolves as villains and is doing everything he can to keep them out of Utah, but he doesn't use good science," said Robinson. "What he does has nothing to do with science."

Karpowitz said the state wildlife agency's objective is to keep habitat and predators in balance with prey animals.

Favoring an approach heavy on human management, he said predator control in Utah is implemented when biologists are trying to re-establish native wildlife, including endangered species; when individual predators threaten human life and property; when big-game herds are not meeting management objectives; and in waterfowl management areas to protect nesting birds.

"When there is evidence predation is a limiting factor, we try to make our control efforts timely and focused," he said. "Predator control is a valuable tool, but it's not the only tool. It should never be viewed as a cure-all. It's part of a comprehensive program."

Linnell, whose federal Wildlife Services works with state agriculture and wildlife agencies to control various predators, said a Utah Agriculture Department poll of urban Wasatch Front residents showed 43 percent did not want wolves allowed in Utah, 38 percent did and 19 percent weren't certain.

"There are places where wolves don't have to be," he said. "All wildlife does not need to be in all ecological zones."

Jones used the biological argument that predators and prey are perfectly adapted to each other.

"The prey population is better when there are active predators," she said.