Overhaul of deer regulations called a victory for elite hunters
The moment, critics say, represents everything that's wrong with the way Utah sets its wildlife management policy.
Byron Bateman, president of the powerful lobbying group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, had just finished speaking before the Utah Wildlife Board as it pondered the state's most dramatic changes to its deer-hunting laws in two decades. Bateman then walked up to Jim Karpowitz, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and handed him a check for $391,000.
Later that day, the board passed the sweeping overhaul, regulations that were largely crafted and promoted by Bateman's SFW. The changes, which go into effect in 2012, will reduce the number of deer-hunting permits by at least 13,000 annually and dramatically increase the cost of a general-season hunting tag in Utah.
Critics charge that opportunity for the average hunter is being lost at the expense of the well-heeled, who are more interested in trophy animals and believe these new laws are the best way to produce more. And everyone, beginning with the DWR's top big-game biologist, agrees the changes do nothing to address the plight of the state's dwindling deer herds.
The money Bateman paid Karpowitz was the state's share of money that SFW collected auctioning conservation hunting tags, and groups commonly do present checks at Wildlife Board meetings. Nevertheless, for many hunters watching the handover, it was validation that special-interest groups have the Wildlife Board's undivided attention and not always for the right reasons.
"That didn't do much to help public perception," acknowledged Rick Woodard, chairman of the Utah Wildlife Board. "But it was money due to the DWR and had nothing to do with the vote. It was done in poor judgment."
"It doesn't matter what the money was for," said Bart Hansen, a representative of the group Utah Wildlife Cooperative, which opposed the changes SFW promoted. "The timing was intentional."
The new regulations, which passed the board by a 4-to-2 vote, not only restrict the number of permits but change the way the state is divided for hunting from the five current regions into 29 smaller units. The buck-to-doe ratio that biologists target as they manage the herds was changed as well, from 15 per 100 to 18 per 100.
That means hunters may see more bucks, according to Anis Aoude, DWR's big-game coordinator. "But it won't help the population overall," he said.
"We did what was best for the resource, for the deer," Bateman said. "The DWR manages every aspect of the deer but the number of people hunting on each unit. We can't expect the hunters to spread out evenly over five regions. This won't fix the herds, but it could be a good start."
Bateman is proud of the work SFW does on behalf of wildlife conservation and said he is unsure how the latest discussion became an opportunity-vs.-trophy debate.
"People always attack what we try to do," he said, noting the check presentation was done to demonstrate SFW was fulfilling its commitment under the conservation permit program and, acknowledging the timing, said he had a flight to catch later.
"We are an easy group to target, and we get accused of a lot of things," Bateman said. "We stand up for the resource; that is our mission."
The Utah Wildlife Cooperative's Hansen has a different take, saying the new regulations risk discouraging existing hunters and make it difficult for youth to get involved in the sport.
"There isn't one anti-hunting group out there that could come up with a way to eliminate 13,000 permits like SFW just did," Hansen said.
Dennis Austin, a retired 30-year DWR biologist and author of Mule Deer: A Handbook for Utah Hunters and Landowners, said the current system does indeed give special-interest groups a lot of power.
"The people who go to the meetings really want to say something, and they are often listened to," he said.
And Karpowitz, the DWR director, agrees.
"The people who get involved and speak up are the ones that are heard, and decisions usually go their way. I have seen the board consistently try to do what they think the majority of the public wants," Karpowitz said.
Karpowitz notes that, according to Utah law, the Wildlife Board's job includes weighing the social and economic values of wildlife, not just managing the biology.
"Throughout this whole process I've been reminding the board and the public that how we hunt bucks in Utah is now very much a social issue," he said. "Our job as the wildlife agency is easier when we only have to focus on the biology and science end of it."
For Hansen, "social" means special interests. He wants to see the system changed and is willing to become the very thing he despises to make it happen.
The Utah Wildlife Cooperative "is going to set up as a nonprofit so we can be more involved in the political process of picking the wildlife board members and try and make some changes with the ... system," he said. "There are too many hunters out there who disagree with SFW but aren't involved enough to know what is going on. We need to speak for them."
Review • What is Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife?
R No group is more special interest when it comes to wildlife and, specifically, big game in Utah than SFW.
Founded in 1993, the group bills itself as a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization interested in preserving and increasing healthy, populations of wildlife throughout the western United States. If there is a meeting going on at the city, county, region or state level regarding big game, chances are there is an SFW representative in the room.
While the group has put wildlife interests on the political map, it has done so by attracting what can best be described as hard-core big game hunters who spend serious money and serious time chasing deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn and moose. One Utah elk permit was recently auctioned for $70,000 at an SFW event, according to the group's website.
So-called "average hunters,"perhaps described as folks who just want to be able to hunt big game each year and couldn't care less about bagging trophy bucks for the wall, are largely absent from the organization.
Results from a 2008 poll of deer hunters by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
75 percent of respondents said "getting away from it all" was the main reason they hunt mule deer. "Being with friends" was second at 73 percent and "being close to nature" was third at 70 percent. "Harvesting a large buck" was 10th on the list at 53 percent, and "harvesting any buck" was 17th at 25 percent.
74 percent of the participants said they would be "willing to accept additional restrictions to manage for bigger bucks."
49 percent of all respondents were "dissatisfied" with the number of bucks they were spotting in the woods.
51 percent were "dissatisfied" with the size of the bucks more specifically their antlers they saw.
55 percent were satisfied with the quality of the hunt.