Profiting from Wildlife Controversy in Utah
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
The State of Utah has paid more than $12 million to keep the pot stirred on protection of wolves and sage grouse.
Reporting and analysis by Cat Urbigkit, RangeWriting.com.
The State of Utah has paid out $5.1 million to one organization to push for wolves to be removed from federal protection in Utah. The State has also paid a private consulting firm $7 million to keep sage grouse off the list of federally protected species.
Utah financial records indicate that Big Game Forever was paid a total $5.1 million since 2012, and that Stag Consulting has received a total of $7 million from 2014 to 2019. What links them is one person: Ryan Benson of Bountiful, Utah.
Benson came on board with Big Game Forever when it split from Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife (SFW) in early 2010. Both groups were founded by Don Peay, a Latter-day Saint, Trump supporter, and well-known hunting advocate who has founded numerous sporting ventures and hunting organizations. Peay brought Benson, a Brigham Young University graduate who went on to earn his law degree from Harvard University, to SFW, but within a few weeks the two worked to found Big Game Forever, for which Benson now serves as the group’s president. Peay has moved on to other ventures, including Hunting Nation, which he founded in 2019.
In hiring Benson, who had worked as a patent attorney in a law firm and served as staff to a congressional member, Peay cited Benson’s “rolodex of top business leaders from around the world” as a major asset. Peay announced that the group had searched from Alaska to Arizona for this new leader, and found it in Benson, who lives about a four-minute drive past the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Peay’s home in Bountiful.
Benson’s Stag Consulting is a limited liability corporation first registered in Utah in 2010 just a few weeks after Benson and Peay founded BGF – and located at the same address as BGF’s IRS Form 990 tax filings (the 2017 report was the most recent year publicly available), which is Benson’s home address. Although Benson’s business has been paid $7 million from 2014-2019 by the State of Utah, online searches for the company failed to turn up a website for the business.
How it began:
In 2010, the Utah Legislature enacted a statute noting “it is the policy of the state to legally advocate and facilitate the delisting of wolves in Utah under the Endangered Species Act and to return management authority to the state,” and appropriating money to the state wildlife division. Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (the precursor to Big Game Forever) gave a presentation about the need for wolf management to be returned to the state at a Senate caucus meeting, and soon the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) sent a $100,000 grant to SFW, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. A review by state audit officials noted “DWR was verbally directed to give the funds to SFW the first year,” but neglects to identify from whom this "legislative direction" originated. SFW received the $100,000 for fiscal year 2011, and after Peay and Benson moved away from SFW to found Big Game Forever, a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit corporation, the funding from the State of Utah followed them, as BGF would be the lobbying arm of SFW on the wolf issue. The auditor's review also noted that the FY2011 and 2012 "grant funds were primarily given as consulting fees to the SFW attorney who also formed BGF."
Big Game Forever Funded
Big Game Forever (BGF) received its first $100,000 as a grant from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in fiscal year 2012 to work on wolf delisting. But the funding mechanism changed from a grant to a contract in fiscal year 2013 as the appropriation was boosted from $100,000 to $300,000 annually. The DWR issued a request for proposals for the effort, and BGF – the sole bidder – was awarded the contract, with Ryan Benson working full-time on the delisting effort. A later review from the Office of the Utah Legislative Auditor General found the contract payment was given upfront and “lacked sufficient safeguards to track and assure that the funds’ use followed state requirements.” That review also took issue with the DWR request for proposals:
“In our opinion, this language specifically describes BGF and gives the appearance that it was tailored to meet their experience and expertise. DWR management said they did this because of their desire to maintain BGF’s expertise and continue the work they had started two years prior.”
The contract allowed for four annual renewals and a summary report at the end of the year. Although the grants programs had required the vendor to maintain accounting records available for review for use of state funds, the contract with BGF did not include those provisions. At the state’s request, BGF provided a summary of the $300,000 allocation, with about $195,000 spent on consulting fees, $40,000 on a federal lobbyist, $30,000 on video production, $15,500 on software, $11,400 on travel and trade shows, and another $8,500 on miscellaneous expenses. The audit review noted:
“BGF reported that about two-thirds of the state funding was paid to the BGF director’s private business and reported as his consulting fees. Expense breakdowns of this consulting business were not supplied.”
DWR Director Greg Sheehan responded to the audit review by rejecting the auditor’s recommendation to replace the upfront payment at the start of the contract with a payment system based on performance standards because lobbying efforts were involved. Sheehan did agree to amend the contract to require additional accounting. By 2015, BGF received $500,000 for the annual contract, which increased to $1.5 million for both 2019 and 2020.
Stag Consulting & Sage Grouse
Meanwhile, by 2015 Benson’s private consulting firm, Stag Consulting, had already received two other contracts with DWR, one for $500,000 in 2014, which was boosted to $1.5 million in 2015, and to $2 million in 2016. Benson’s company was being paid by the DWR to keep the Greater Sage Grouse off the endangered species list. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:
“Citing Benson's ‘success’ in the wolf fight — which has yet to result in a nationwide de-listing for the maligned predator — natural resources bosses chose Big Game Forever for the sage grouse contract over bids from firms with far more experience in sage grouse matters.”
The legislature defeated an effort to require Benson to provide detailed expenditure reports.
When Benson’s Stag Consulting filed its annual sage grouse report in October 2014, the report was issued by BGF – Stag Consulting wasn’t mentioned in the document.
That omission was addressed in the next annual report, with Stag Consulting on its cover instead of BGF, and the introductory statement: “As contemplated in Stag Consulting’s contract proposal, Stag Consulting has worked extensively with Big Game Forever, a 501(c) 4 social welfare organization to engage the public in the process. Ryan Benson is the attorney who leads these efforts.” Subsequent reports included this same language, until the October 2017 report when reference to BGF was dropped.
None of the reports filed thus far include any information on how Benson spent the $7 million funding from the State of Utah since 2014. State and federal lobbying disclosure records indicate that Benson’s Stag Consulting hired a lobbyist (Ryan Peterson) to work the Utah Legislature starting in November 2019. Utah lobbyist Ryan Peterson is the managing partner for Peterson Consulting Group, a full-service government relations firm specializing in Utah legislative issues. Peterson was also a paid lobbyist for BGF from December 2012 to January 2018.
Federal records indicate that Benson’s Stag Consulting has paid for lobbying in Washington, D.C., since 2014, paying $120,000 annually. Lobbyist disclosure records declare that the effort is for “general environmental issues” and occasionally refer to “environmental impacts on military operations.” None of the reports specifically mention sage grouse.
Muddying the Lobbying Pool
BGF also had a lobbyist based in Washington, D.C. Federal lobbying reports found at the Center for Responsive Politics (a searchable database found at opensecrets.org) reveal that the BGF had paid lobbyists in D.C. from 2013 to 2018, paying as much as $410,000 in 2015, but dropping to a low of $38,000 in 2018.
The BGF lobbyist reports indicate that BGF was paying for lobbying efforts aimed at wolf delisting through 2014. But in March 2015 – the same year Benson’s Stag Consulting gets the Utah sage grouse contract – BGF begins paying a second lobbyist. This lobbyist listed BGF as his client, using the same physical address as both Ryan Benson’s Stag Consulting and BGF, and stated that the specific lobbying issue he was hired to address was “sage-grouse conservation.” The lobbyist, who is employed by Holland & Hart LLP, dutifully filed his quarterly disclosure statements, noting on each report that lobbying efforts involved sage grouse issues. The records indicate payments of $50,000 in 2015, $70,000 in 2016, and at least $120,000 in 2017, all paid by BGF – not Stag Consulting – for lobbying on sage grouse conservation.
BGF on Wolves
According to BGF’s 2013 wolf contract report, the organization focused on four categories of activities: education and science, public outreach, direct action, and legislative/legal. The direct action included launching an online petition on BGF’s website, from which its members “have sent tens of thousands of messages in support of state management of wolf populations.” BGF sends out email blasts, records videos for social media use, and paid for billboards depicting a pack of wolves attacking a moose accompanied by the statement “Help save our moose and elk.” BGF hosts booths at conventions and trade shows, and intervened in a lawsuit seeking to have wolf management returned to state wildlife agencies. The 2013 report included a breakdown of how much of the $300,000 was spent on program and support services, but provided no details about specific spending.
By 2016, the annual reports on the wolf contract by BGF and the sage grouse contract by Stag Consulting were identical. Neither included details on expenditures from the millions of dollars these entities were being paid by the State of Utah.
The BGF 2017 wolf report included a new design, and a new physical address at a location on 500 South in Bountiful, housed in the same complex as a UPS store and a hair salon. But the annual reports issued in 2018 and 2019 are substantially repeats of that 2017 report, with the same words, images, and design, with a few paragraphs and pages added here and there. The annual reports include striking images of wolves – but neglected to include the photo credits typically required under licensing agreements for such use.
Still the reports did not include detailed information on expenditures. In its 2017 report, BGF began adding a one-page summary of budget expenditures, which was little more than a pie chart with general spending categories (public outreach/legislative, education, legal, etc.).
Here’s the most recent financial disclosure – providing a summary of spending by category for a total of $1.1 million in six months.
BGF's Public Face
Although BGF is well-known for its anti-wolf activism, few details of the organization's activities are readily available to the public. According to its website, memberships in BGF start at $25, which earns you a membership packet and a window decal. Memberships at $50 and above get you a gun case, a subscription to a hunting magazine, and various other perks. The public front for the website does not include a news page, blog posts, membership forum, or annual reports highlighting the group’s activities and listing its donors. The page doesn’t include a telephone number for more information – for a group that has raked in at least $1.5 million from the State of Utah this year alone.
What is on the website are a few general statements about conservation, four videos, and six “take action” buttons on generic issues such as wolf management – all of which request people to sign online petitions. For example, in response to mule deer declines across the west, the petition states: “I support sustaining healthy mule deer populations through state management.” Rather than being a call to action, the site seems designed to capture email and location data more than anything else.
The BGF issue page for Greater Sage Grouse apparently hasn’t been updated in at least four years, and its petition simply asks people to sign an online form in agreement with the statement that “We need your support for common sense, state-based conservation measures that not only protect balanced use of our managed landscapes but also long-term conservation of species like the Greater Sage-Grouse.”
The "About" section of the website consists of a timeline touting BGF's accomplishments, but ends in 2016. BGF’s Twitter account hasn’t been active since June 2016, and its YouTube channel hasn’t been updated in at least three years. BGF is very active on Facebook, frequently posting wildlife photos from around the world and links to news, rather than updates about the organization and its activities.
To complicate financial matters further, Ryan Benson also serves as the principal officer of the Big Game Forever Foundation, which applied for its 501 (c) (3) nonprofit status in 2012. According to the foundation’s Form 990 tax return for 2018, the foundation spent $55,200 while taking in revenue of $108,238.
It is unclear whether the membership money and donations generated through the website go to BGF or its foundation. There is no statement on the website proclaiming the tax status of the overall organization.
Effective, or No?
Based on the lack of publicly available information, it would be difficult to assess whether BGF is an effectively utilizing the money provided by the State of Utah. The tangled financial web centered around Ryan Benson – his private business Stag Consulting, the Big Game Forever organization, and the Big Game Forever Foundation – is problematic and raises questions. Those questions were initially raised by the Utah government auditor but remain unanswered – some six years and more than $4 million later. Indeed, it appears the overlap between BGF, its foundation, and Stag Consulting remains substantial. But unless and until Utah state officials decide to insist on a real accounting, the public will never know if they are getting their money’s worth.
Wolf Status in Utah
Wolves in the majority of Utah remain an endangered species subject to federal protection. The exception is a small portion of northern Utah (north of I-80 and east of I-84) where wolves were delisted along with Wyoming’s population. The Utah DWR reports that this delisted zone “is the only area where the State of Utah has had authority to manage, capture or kill wolves.”
In its 2010 wolf legislation, the Utah Legislature directed DWR to prevent any packs of wolves from establishing within the delisted zone until the species is removed from federal protection in the rest of the state.
But wolves continue to push the boundaries. One was shot and killed in the delisted zone in 2014, another was killed in 2015, and animal damage control officials confirmed a calf had been killed by wolves in June 2020. That wolf evaded traps set for it and has disappeared.
Although the State of Utah has paid BGF $5.1 million for delisting wolves in Utah, the legal status of the species remains unchanged.
Sage Grouse Status
After paying Stag Consulting $7 million to keep sage grouse from being listed as a federally protected species, the legal status of this species also remains unchanged. That’s the good news for Utah legislators.
The bad news is that sage grouse populations continue to decline; Utah’s sage grouse attendance at leks declined 61 percent from 2015 to 2019.
Only time will tell if state plans for restoration of the species will be enough to hold off federal listing, no matter how much money Utah throws in the direction of groups like BGF.
This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two.