DWR closes wildlife area to target shooting

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) A man, who identified himself as Tony, takes aim at paper targets with a 9mm handgun on public lands west of Utah Lake. The Bureau of Land Management has initiated a public process to revise a management plan on a 9,000-acre area on the Lake Mountains to help curb impacts associated with target shooting, including dumping, damage to ancient rock art, wildland fire, and threats to public safety. Now, the state Division of Wildlife Resources has closed an area near Santaquin, east of I-15, to target shooting.

State officials have permanently closed a Utah County wildlife area to target shooting after bullets continued striking a new subdivision, despite signs cautioning shooters to act responsibly.

The closure of the Santaquin Wildlife Management Area (WMA) reflects a situation playing out across many parts of the West where residential growth is encroaching on open lands enjoyed by firearm enthusiasts who are finding their pastime in conflict with public safety and other recreation users.

This has been particularly true in fast-growing Utah County, where target shooting is extremely popular. Unfairly or not, shooters are blamed for starting wildfires, damaging historic rock art, littering and jeopardizing the public.

Because of the potential of stray rounds hitting homes, parts of the WMA south of the growing town of Santaquin are off-limits, effective immediately, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which oversees a network of state-owned wildlife management areas.

“Due to the growing population across the Wasatch Front, we wanted to take a proactive approach to keeping people safe in the area around our Santaquin WMA,” said Jason Vernon, one of DWR’s regional supervisors. “There are still other WMAs where people can safely target shoot, and we encourage the public to use those areas, as well as established shooting ranges along the Wasatch Front.”

The WMA spans the Utah-Juab county line at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, immediately east of Interstate 15. The now-closed shooting areas are Debris Basin in Santaquin Canyon and north of Powerline Road. The closures do not affect hunting.

Generally speaking, most state and federally owned lands in Utah are open to target shooting, but this activity poses challenges to land managers who have to clean up the messes left by target shooters and balance competing uses.

In recent years, state trust land officials and the Bureau of Land Management closed most of the Lake Mountains' east slope to target shooting after shooters trashed this area above Utah Lake’s west shore, which happens to harbor panels of ancient Fremont petroglyphs. That closure pushed shooters into other parts of Utah and Tooele counties.

During last summer’s busy wildfire season, which saw a record number of human-caused fires, DWR closed 17 wildlife management areas, including Santaquin, to shooting to reduce the risk of a gunfire sparking a fire.