The phone to Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources can sometimes ring three dozen times before it's picked up. Some of the offices are now empty, and the biologists who worked in them are gone.
"We're all walking around here
paranoid, wondering who's next," mutters a biologist well into his
second decade on the job. "Everybody's looking for new jobs."
"It hurts," Craig Miya says glumly. He's among
those who've found new employment. After 23 years at the division,
working his way up to assistant chief of law enforcement, Miya will
leave Salt Lake City soon for a new wildlife job in Oregon. "I
blame the political hacks from the governor on down," Miya says.
"They've gutted the agency for doing our jobs too damn well."
Strong words. But wildlife management in Utah
and most Western states always stirs the blood. Ranchers are angry
over growing wildlife populations which compete with livestock for
forage. Hunters and non-hunters tangle over the ethics of the hunt
itself. County commissioners oppose the agency's attempts to buy
wildlife habitat because it takes land off the tax rolls. And
everyone gets distressed at the sight of winter starvation of the
deer herd - starvation brought on by declining
"Whoever manages wildlife is riding a
bucking bronco," Gov. Michael Leavitt said at a statewide wildlife
forum on public television in April. That Leavitt saw the need to
appear on a one-hour call-in show devoted to wildlife shows the
level of interest in Utah. The show followed another first, a
3,000-person pro-wildlife rally promoted by a number of outdoor
groups previously known for their apathetic
Wildlife's suddenly high profile
coincides with the suddenly low profile of the state's most-hunted
big game species. The mule deer population is at a 50-year low.
After six years of drought, the heavy winter of 1992-1993 finished
off much of the weakened herd, and hunter success last season was
the lowest in decades. After flirting with a complete cancellation
of the coming mule deer season, Gov. Leavitt ordered it scaled back
to 40 percent of normal, to 90,000 licenses instead of the usual
As the mule deer have declined, so too
has the agency which manages them. The trouble began when the
agency found itself relying on the legislature for a small but
growing part of its funding. The biggest share of the department's
$24 million budget comes from fishing and hunting license revenue,
but in the last two decades, to help fund wildlife management of
non-game species, it has relied on a general appropriation of $1
million to $2 million from the legislature.
1992, rural Utah legislators, fed up with what they described as
agency arrogance over rural wildlife issues, succeeded in cutting
the agency's general appropriation to just
The agency soon found itself in debt.
It fired all part-time workers, and left vacant jobs unfilled. It
sold off surplus property, but still DWR was in the
"This is an agency that hasn't been well
managed," says Ted Stewart, executive director of the Department of
Natural Resources, which oversees the wildlife
Stewart ordered a management review, and
brought in an interim director. The review, by the Wildlife
Management Institute, concluded that too much management was
concentrated in Salt Lake, and that more decisions should be made
at the regional level. It also proposed a reorganization from seven
divisions to four.
In the shuffle, 28 full-time
positions were eliminated. Since many of those jobs had gone
unfilled since the legislature's budget cuts, only 10 full-time
employees were fired. But the move set off a devastating chain of
job shuffling. Under state personnel policies, senior employees are
allowed to bump those junior to them. In all, 64 employees wound up
in new jobs.
Environmental groups wonder if the
reorganization wasn't intentionally designed to gut the
"There's been a concerted effort to make
DWR as ineffective as possible," says Ken Rait, issues coordinator
for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This should be called
the Division of Political Resources."
all the reshuffling, reorganizing and budget cutting, nothing has
touched off anger among agency employees and wildlife supporters as
much as the Clair Jensen affair. Jensen, a 28-year employee and the
regional supervisor in Leavitt's home town of Cedar City, was
stripped of his job and told to await reassignment after sending
what he called "a pretty benign letter." Responding to a Forest
Service request about the state's position on federal wild and
scenic rivers designations of several small streams in southwestern
Utah, Jensen wrote that his agency supported the
"I was never instructed otherwise,"
Jensen says. But Natural Resources director Stewart says the letter
was "a real kick in the head. If he gave a biological opinion, that
letter would not be a problem," Stewart says, "but the letter was
political leaders routinely attack threatened and endangered
species, wilderness designations, and wild and scenic rivers
designations. The Leavitt administration, although it said it
wanted more decisions made at the regional level, did not want this
decision made there.
Some see Jensen's limbo-like
status as a clear signal that the newly reorganized agency is newly
politicized. "It'll be extremely difficult for the Leavitt
administration to get the respect of wildlife professionals in this
state," former DWR chief Doug Day says. "They're interested in
political advantage, not basic biology. It's disgraceful."
"From this point on, everyone's going to be
scared to death," says Miya, who is on his way to a job with Ducks
Unlimited. "When Ted Stewart says morale is 100 percent better now,
it's a total lie."
But even in the midst of
plummeting employee morale, wholesale job shifts and a poor public
image, some environmental groups see the upheaval as
"This division could not go on the way
it was," says Dick Carter of the Utah Wilderness Association. "It
has operated with a hunt club mentality since it began. It's time
to turn the division upside down, shake it around, and let some
guys fall out and let the old ideas fall out with them."
Utah Audubon Society lobbyist Wayne Martinson
credits Leavitt with giving wildlife a higher profile than his
predecessors. It was Leavitt who got the legislature, which started
the chain of events with its initial budget cut, to appropriate
more general fund money this past session than ever before. The
money is designed to repay the division for hunting license revenue
it will lose because the deer hunt was cut
That, Carter thinks, is a good start.
"Right now the division thinks about revenue based on the number of
animals killed. The future agency should do just the reverse."
Big-game biologists hope the reduced hunting
pressure will help the mule deer herd rebound in three to five
years. Wildlife enthusiasts wonder if the division, its employees,
its political fortunes and its public image will rebound as
"I don't think you can avoid politics,"
Leavitt told the televised wildlife forum. "I hope what we're
ending up with is an honest process where everyone's values and
points of view can be considered, and we can tame that bucking
The writer is a
television reporter in Salt Lake City,