The recent shooting deaths of two cow elk on a popular Park City trail system has rekindled long-simmering tensions between some Utah cities and wildlife officials over where hunting should be allowed.
As Utah’s population swells, more people are living and playing near and on public lands that have long been used for big game hunting. Hunters are increasingly stalking deer and elk near homes and recreation areas, such as Park City’s Round Valley and Huntsville’s Cemetery Point, that didn’t exist a generation ago.
Yet those cities have zero authority to ban or even regulate hunting on these lands, and some locally elected leaders want to change that to protect the public.
Those skiing or cycling this past week at Round Valley could come across the carcass of an elk shot Dec. 28 and abandoned on the Rambler Trail near Old Ranch Road.
“It was in a heavily used area during a peak time, so it was horrible judgment regardless of the legality,” Park City Mayor Andy Beerman said. “The land was annexed specifically for management purposes, and prohibiting hunting was part of that management.”
The Division of Wildlife Resources is investigating the elk shootings as possible poaching. The killings themselves could have been entirely legal if the shooters held valid elk tags and followed various hunting rules, such as prohibitions on hunting after dark and within 600 feet of a residence. Round Valley is entirely within the Salt Lake Wasatch Mountains cow elk hunting unit, which issued 40 tags this season and runs through Jan. 31, according to DWR conservation officer McKay Braley, who is investigating the elk deaths.
But what has irked many Park City residents is not so much that the elk were gunned down but that the hunters were shooting on land that the city bought and set aside for trail-based recreation. It is no place for hunting, argued Beerman, who fears that the potential for tragedy is too great to allow the discharge of firearms in that area.
But, DWR notes, the city’s ordinance banning hunting inside its boundaries carries no legal weight on Round Valley or any land within city limits open to public access.
Comes with the territory
Hunting holds a special place in Utah law, which gives the state Wildlife Board — a governor-appointed panel stacked with big game hunters, guides and ranchers — the sole discretion to close areas to hunting. Generally, open lands available for public access are open to hunting. Exceptions include lands administered by the National Park Service. Other federal lands agencies, like the the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, leave the regulation of hunting entirely up to the state.
Alta, whose town limits include the ski resort at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, is one of the few Utah towns the Wildlife Board has authorized to prohibit hunting. State officials and hunting advocates say Utahns need to recognize that these rural lands have been hunting grounds for generations.
“When we make a choice to live out in the country, there are things that come with that, the serenity and the peace, but there is also hunting. There are deer and bears that come through town,” Wildlife Board member Kevin Albrecht said at a recent board meeting.
Park City is hardly alone in wanting to ban rifle hunting within or near city limits.
“The state has charged municipalities with public safety, but when it comes to hunting, they want to take that totally out of our hands, even though it involves shooting near people’s property,” said Castle Valley Mayor Jazmine Duncan. Her Grand County town recently tried to persuade the Wildlife Board to eliminate all firearms hunting on about 1,500 acres of public land inside the town limits. In a unanimous vote, the board rejected the request, although it agreed to maintain a long-standing ban on rifle hunting on these lands, which remain open to “primitive” weapons, such as bows, muzzleloaders and shotguns.
Wildlife Board member Wade Heaton, an Alton-based outfitter, was concerned about opening the door for other towns to exclude hunters.
“If we start setting a precedent that we are going to close hunting or have archery only around every subdivision or town, it opens us up to some significant issues that won’t stop,” Heaton said at a Dec. 4 board meeting. “I don’t think I can take that step.”
Other advocates noted that hunting is among the safest outdoor activities.
“I hate to set a precedent based on a what-if. In that case, none of us would drive. None of us would go anywhere because what happens if someone hits us,” said Ron Camp, the Utah director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I am concerned about the safety of their towns. However, we already have laws on the books that say [hunters] cannot discharge a firearm close to a residential area. I’m not sure we need to close off certain areas to hunting.”
‘Shooting from the roads’
Now, some county commissioners are pressing the state for the authority to do just that. Ricocheting rounds sometimes pierce windows of Huntsville homes, Mayor Jim Truett said, yet local authorities are powerless to control where hunting takes place, as long as the shots are fired at least 600 feet from a home.
A rifle round can travel a lot farther. Just look at a box of American Eagle high-velocity .22-caliber rounds. It reads “dangerous within 1½ miles.”
“I would like the cities and counties to have the ability to set zones where it doesn’t make sense to have high-powered rifles,” said Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer, a former Utah legislator. “I’m pro-hunting, but there comes a time and a place where it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think the Wildlife Board has the experience and local knowledge to know where the problem is. The people living in a community should have a say about firearms around residential areas.”
Last year, Truett pleaded with the Weber County Commission to bar high-powered rifles on public lands surrounding his town, which occupies a peninsula called Cemetery Point protruding from Pineview Reservoir’s eastern shore. Deer congregate there in the fall and are sometimes pursued by hunters.
“People are actually shooting from the roads in Huntsville,” said Truett, himself a hunter. “lt’s just a matter of time before someone gets injured or killed.”
He insists shooting rifles should not be allowed inside the perimeter formed by State Road 39 and other streets encircling the reservoir, a popular year-round destination for boating, fishing and cross-country skiing.
“This is not anti-hunting or about gun rights,” he said. “This is about public safety.”
He and other public officials recalled the September 2018 shooting of a 14-year-old boy, killed by a stray rifle round while he was riding in a car near Monte Cristo. The fatal bullet was fired by someone target shooting on public land and unaware a road passed behind their targets.
“The odds of something like that happening at Pineview are a hundredfold greater,” Truett said. “My hands our tied. It’s a sad thing.”
Salt Lake City residents are among the many people who ski, hike and ride with children and dogs year-round on Round Valley’s 30-mile trail system on rolling, sagebrush-covered terrain bound by Old Ranch Road and U.S. Highway 40. The trails see about 500,000 recreation visits a year, according to Charlie Sturgis, executive director of the Mountain Trails Foundation. He manages those trails on former ranchlands now covered with conservation easements that saved them from becoming another subdivision in the mushrooming Snyderville Basin.
“Somebody should look at the law,” said Cheryl Fox, executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy, which oversees those easements that ensure the land is open to recreation. “We are managing hunting as if there is still only 1 million people in Utah. ... I was told you cannot allow the public in for one use, but not exclude hunting. That seems ludicrous. The consequences of someone making a mistake are potentially disastrous."