More animals are being killed illegally in Utah, DWR says

(Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) This bighorn ram was found shot dead Oct. 20, 2019, along the Barracks ATV trail near Mount Carmel Junction in Kane County. The desert bighorn sheep was among the nearly 300 big game animals illegally killed in Utah last year.

A desert bighorn ram was found lying dead last fall on southern Utah’s Barracks ATV Trail near Mount Carmel Junction.

A poacher had fired a bullet into the desert bighorn’s right side and through both lungs, then drove away leaving the carcass to waste, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

That trophy animal, whose killing remains under investigation, was among the 1,050 animals that were illegally killed last year in Utah, an increase over the previous year, DWR reported this week.

Yet the division issued about 10% fewer citations for fish and wildlife violations — 526 last year — and recorded far fewer such violations than in 2018, perhaps a reflection of staffing vacancies that led to fewer conservation officers in the field.

While most of the illegally killed animals were fish, at least 273 were cherished big game species, according to DWR Sgt. Chad Bettridge.

“Each animal that is illegally killed in our state is one less animal that legal hunters, wildlife enthusiasts or everyday citizens do not have the opportunity to enjoy,” Bettridge said. “Poachers steal our ability to enjoy Utah's wildlife.”

[Read more: Bull elk shot and ‘left to waste’ near Utah highway]

Wildlife and fish are considered the property of the state the animals inhabit, so killing these animals without the state’s permission is considered theft. Poaching is also a form of biological vandalism that diminishes Utah’s natural heritage.

Among the big game animals poached last year was a buck found shot to death east of Holden in Millard County, just off the side of a road. It was killed in mid-November when no legal deer hunt was underway. The carcass, which included a six-point rack of trophy proportions, was left to waste. Despite a reward and a promise of confidentiality, no information has materialized identifying a culprit, according to DWR conservation officer Greg Baird, who is investigating the case.

The 2019 death tally includes 150 mule deer, 95 elk, five moose, five bison and 17 antelopes, according to Bettridge. Also illegally killed were some predators such as bobcats, bears and cougars.

These figures don’t include two cow elk killed Dec. 28 on the popular Round Valley ski trails near Park City. Those killings, which occurred within Utah’s wintertime cow elk season, remain under investigation and their legality, or lack thereof, has yet to be determined, according to DWR conservation officer McKay Braley. One of the elk was abandoned, which would likely be considered a criminal waste under Utah law, but its killing may have been legal if the shooter held an appropriate tag and was hunting during daylight.

The count of illegally taken wildlife also does not include the 20 trumpeter swans killed by Utah hunters during the annual tundra swan hunt. While it is illegal to hunt trumpeters, a highly protected species and North America’s largest bird, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows a limited number to be killed by tundra swan hunters because the two species are hard to distinguish in flight.

Bettridge stressed that not all illegal wildlife kills can be considered “poaching.” Many violations are committed by licensed hunters and anglers who shot the wrong animal or shot it in the wrong location, or kept a fish that should have been released. Utah fishing rules get pretty granular, governing use of bait and lures, seasonal closures and size restrictions.

For example, cutthroat trout longer than 15 inches caught in Strawberry Reservoir are to be returned to the water. Why? Because these larger fish have reached the ideal size for eating invasive chub, whose numbers officials are trying to control with the help of the native predator, according to Bettridge. DWR, however, allows anglers to keep cutthroat lunkers longer than 20 inches for the sake of promoting a trophy fishery at Strawberry.

Utah’s trophy fish, which include trout, walleye, salmon, char, grayling, muskellunge, bass and wiper, fetch a restitution value of $25. Nontrophy fish are worth $10.

These seemingly arbitrary values are set by the Legislature and range from $5 to $30,000 in the case of bighorn sheep, a rare game animal that was extirpated by Utah settlers but is now highly valued by hunters willing to pay huge sums for a rare chance to stalk one. Deer and elk are valued at $8,000 per animal for restitution purposes, while bison and mountain goats are worth $6,000, and pronghorn $2,000.

According to these dollar values, the illegally killed animals were worth $386,000.

None was worth more than the ram killed and left to rot at Mile 12.8 on the Barracks ATV Trail on Oct. 20. Any information that leads to the arrest of the perpetrator would be held in confidence and could be eligible for a reward.

Members of the public are encouraged to report any suspicious hunting activity by calling the UTiP hotline, 1-800-662-DEER (3337), which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is printed on all hunting and fishing licenses.