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Wharton: This hunter preserves history and habitat

Published April 25, 2013 10:06 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salt Lake lawyer Jack Ray represents everything good about hunters.

This quiet man savors time spent in lonely duck marshes or hunting big game in remote mountain ranges. As a member of a Great Salt Lake duck club, he spends countless hours improving wildlife habitat by removing non-native predators, burning or eliminating invasive weeds such as phragmites and managing dikes, ponds and water to preserve habitat that helps thousands if not millions of birds.

Jack is also a bit of a historian. His short paper on the history of the Great Salt Lake duck clubs shows his love for wild places.

These duck clubs are privately owned. Most have clubhouses or a few simple shacks or cabins on the marshes where folks such as Ray can escape the pavement and noise of the city. Some clubs date back over a 100 years, preserving 40,000 acres of important wetlands and providing a link to the early days of conservation.

In the early 1900s, a huge percentage of Utah's population hunted, especially ducks. Marshes were found throughout the valley, at Decker Lake and along the Jordan River. When the season opened in early October, people rode trains, boats, horse drawn wagons and even a few cars to marshes, where campfires could be seen glowing.

"Duck hunting was the thing to do in 1910," Ray said. "There were no mountain bikes, videos or ski resorts. There were not the array of options that there are now."

Alas, the number of hunters and acres of protected wetlands both seem to be decreasing, developments that are more than likely connected.

"If you eliminate the casual hunter, you might eliminate the parent of tomorrow's Aldo Leopold [a famous naturalist and hunter]," said Ray. "You take the casual hunter out of the system, pretty soon you take people out of the system and then you lose participants in the next generation and the generation after that."

Just look at what has become of Utah hunting in the last 40 years. We've dropped from 250,000 deer hunters to around 70,000. The pheasant hunt used to be a big deal, drawing upwards of 90,000. Now I doubt that under 15,000 participate. Where there once were 40,000 waterfowl hunters, there are easily less than 20,000 today.

Ray, for example, grew up hunting deer in the Stansbury Mountains in Tooele County. He can remember having a tough time finding an open place to camp. In the pre-dawn hours before the opener, he would see a line of flashlights going up the trail.

"Now you can go out there at 10 p.m. the night before the opening and find a good camping site," he said. "I am not convinced that decreasing the number of hunters is the solution to the problem [of dwindling deer numbers].."

What particularly concerns Ray is the slow elimination and development of the Great Salt Lake's world class wetlands, a resource few but avid hunters and birders even realize is located adjacent to the city.

"The fat has been cut out of the system and so has most of the muscle," he said, lamenting the loss of 20 acres here, another 50 there, so the wetlands and the lake system slowly falls apart. It's dying by the death of a thousand cuts. It's no longer cuts, but amputations. Great Salt Lake Minerals is ready to swallow up another 70,000 acres of the lake. At some point, you have to draw the line and say 'this and no further.'"

So Ray and his duck hunting club buddies help fight the good preservation fight. I liked two things he wrote in his history story:

"Hunting is a process, a fabric woven one threat at a time, that intertwines the hunter with nature. Some threads involve observation, some marsh craft, some preservation, some sustenance and, in the process, some necessarily involve death. As each thread is added, the connection grows stronger, the tapestry more vivid, the story it tells richer."

And:

"Duck hunting has preserved this marsh from the drain tiling, tillage and asphalt of surrounding land but that is not why I hunt, merely a natural result of it. Whether the sense of connection that I feel and that leads to preservation justifies killing an animal may only be answered by a power higher than mine. But the absence of hunting here, on this marsh, will certainly reap a loss of habitat and an absence of wildlife as well."

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton