For the first time since at least 1981, mule deer on Antelope Island will be in the cross hairs of a hunter's rifle.
A hunter won the right to kill one buck later this year on the 26,000-acre Utah state park with a bid of $265,000 during the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo held last weekend in Salt Lake City. A tag to hunt a ram bighorn sheep this year went for $50,000. One other tag to hunt each species will be awarded through a public drawing administered by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in the spring.
Hunting groups had been trying to get the Antelope Island hunting tags for more than a decade. It was approved last summer on a one-year trial basis, with the requirement that 90 percent of the money from the auctioned tags be used for wildlife habitat improvements on the island.
"I want the money going into habitat improvements, not toilet paper and plungers," said Miles Moretti, president of the Utah-based Mule Deer Foundation, which helped auction off the tag. "This money will not be going to the infrastructure of the park but is to be truly used for on-the-ground projects to improve wildlife habitat."
Steve Bates, Antelope Island State Park wildlife biologist, said the mule deer tag drew about what he expected it would, but he was still bewildered that someone would spend so much.
"This is a pretty good boost to the program," he said. "In light of where everything is going, this really is a good thing. It is money we probably would not see otherwise."
Utah State Parks and Recreation is dealing with a$3 million cut to its budget ordered by the Utah legislature. Bates said the money from the two auctioned permits would be used for habitat improvements, mainly the installment of wildlife water storage devices known as guzzlers.
"It will allow bighorn sheep to better utilize the habitat available to them with water resources close to vegetation they may not usually use," he said.
The Antelope Island mule deer tag was the highest draw at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo. Show officials say more than $2 million was raised in conservation auction tags alone during the three-day event, with tags elsewhere in the state available via lottery for as low as $5 per chance.
Combined with other fundraisers, more than $5 million was raised for wildlife conservation.