There are many projects Jim Karpowitz can look back on fondly during his 34-year career as a state wildlife biologists in Utah. There is one critter, however, that holds a special place in his heart.
Early in his career Karpowitz, who announced his retirement Thursday as director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) effective Dec. 1, worked to bolster and reintroduce bighorn sheep to their native habitats across the state.
"We had experienced a big die-off with desert bighorn. They were rapidly dwindling with less than 1,000 left and we were clear out of Rocky Mountain bighorn," he said. "We started a pretty aggressive transplant and restoration program for desert, California and Rocky Mountain bighorns."
Wild sheep have rebounded in Utah with a population of about 5,000 and roughly 75 hunting permits available for the species annually. The two Watchable Wildlife viewing events held for bighorn sheep each year are well attended and often provide people with their first sighting of the animals.
"It feels really good to have been a part of that," Karpowitz said. "There were a lot of people involved and that was definitely a high point."
Karpowitz, who started as a seasonal biologist working on waterfowl habitat in 1976, was named director of the state wildlife agency in 2005 after serving as the big-game coordinator out of the Salt Lake office for six years.
"Jim has done great things for Utah's wildlife," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the man who hired Karpowitz to guide the DWR. "He is an outstanding biologist and a man of integrity. He will be greatly missed."
Bill Christensen, Utah regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, has been working directly with Karpowitz for more than two decades. Christensen said he has not always agreed with the opinions and decisions Karpowitz made through the years, but he always appreciated the honesty and strong will associated with the man.
"I always found him to be fair and honest even when I disagreed with him," Christensen said. "Jim has a strong hunting background and was a biologist who spent a lot of time in the field. He was an advocate of big game, and I wonder how many more opportunities we will have to get a director like him."
Karpowitz says he does have at least one regret as he prepares to leave.
"I wish we could have seen more progress with deer herd recovery," he said. "We have all the right things in place to make it happen, and I am confident that, given time, and good weather that it will work."
One of the programs instigated to help mule deer recover and provide habitat for all wildlife was put in motion by Kevin Conway, the DWR director before Karpowitz.
"The Wastershed Restoration Initiative was Kevin's idea, but he passed away before it could be realized," Karpowitz said. "I felt an obligation to help fulfill his vision."
DWR officials say more than 1 million acres of habitat will have been improved or restored in Utah during Karpowitz's time as director of the agency.
Styler said he would like to name a replacement for Karpowitz by his Dec. 1 retirement date.
Karpowitz said he has not been asked, but hopes the position is filled from inside the agency.
"There are some really good choices within the Division," he said. "I'd feel good leaving the agency in good hands. Regardless of who the director is there are a lot of good people in positions throughout the agency who can continue to build on what we have done."
Karpowitz said he plans to take some personal time, but then expects to be working on wildlife conservation in some manner.