There’s some new developments in the controversy around Big Game Forever (BGF). Over the last few years, the state legislature has given the group $600,000 to BGF to remove grey wolfs from the federal endangered species list so they can be managed by the state. Many groups balked at the proposal, saying the wolf-problem in the Beehive state is nonexistent. Now, legislative auditors have delivered a report to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee admitting that the state didn’t even secure control of how BGF would use the money. “[There was] little direction for the use of state funds,” auditors reported. “Management of contracts [was] lacking.”
In July, lawmakers requested that auditors investigate Big Game Forever to determine how they spent the state’s funds, after concerns arose that tax payer dollars were being used inappropriately – for example to hire lobbyists to lobby the very lawmakers giving BGF funds. The conclusion: there is no way to be certain whether funds were used correctly, due to poor planning from the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in writing BGF’s contract in 2013.
When BGF was originally charged by the state to lobby Congress to have the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services remove the grey wolf from the endangered species list, the state was unclear in the specific goals the state wished to achieve. Instead, the state required general reporting of how funds were spent after the fact as part of a grant the state awarded to BGF. Adding to these woes, in 2013 BFG received a lump sum at the start of the fiscal year with only the requirement that general reporting be available.
Michael Styler, Executive Director of the Department of Natural Resources, said it was “the interest of the state of Utah to have management authority over all animal species…and the best management is, unquestionably, management by the state of Utah.” Styler went on to say “the results [brought about by BFG] were unbelievably successful…the money we have spent has been well spent and the results have been results have been far more than I could have dreamed we could have accomplished with that.”
This prompted a quick response from Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – SLC), who said he was told that the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) never asked for additional funds to deal with grey wolf de-listing in February of this year. Upset at the proposition that DWR was claiming victory when no clear goals were put into place by the DWR for Big Game Forever to acheive, Davis suggested that the state gave funds to an agency that didn’t request it for a purpose that was unclear, suggesting to Styler that the agency was now trying to say ‘we gave out contracts and they did really well even though the money was never asked for.’
Styler replied that the statemnt from Davis was correct, “but that’s not to say we didn’t welcome it.”
“I see the accountability for the first couple $100,000 [given to BFG – referring to original reporting standards], but the $300,000, continuing on, and then another $300,000 the following year and to make the contract actually not as reportable [due to DWR failure to properly write contracts] concerns me. To me, that is just a gift with no accountability for what [BFG is] doing with our $600,000 in state monies,” Davis told the committee.
“I feel like there is a lack of accountability in a lot of areas—and I am not saying that the Division [of Wildlife Resources] broke the law, what I am concerned about is the infrastructure that we have there to be able to go forward with not only this issue, but others,” Representative Jen Seelig (Democrat – Rose Park). “I think there is a lot more we can do.”
The ultimate concern, as raised by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (Republican – Sandy), was that any changes to contacting rules could cause problems for other non-profits who take advantage of state funds -such as those that deal with Health and Human Services. Any changes to contracting rules would have to affect these contracts as well.
The Subcomittee decided to send this question and others raised during the hearing to various subcomitees to investigate the issues raised in the report and suggest any possible changes to the process.