MARSING, IDAHO

"The drawing for the wolf hunt will be at the very end, so nobody can go sneaking out early,” says Nate Helm, addressing a crowd of about 30 men and women at Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife’s first annual Predator Derby, held in January at the new American Legion Hall. Helm is SFW-Idaho’s executive director, a trim, youthful and redheaded man in his early 30s, the former natural resources coordinator for Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig. Helm’s wife is busy signing up the entrants to the derby with three of the six Helm children in close attendance, camo-clad and well-behaved.

The line of contenders includes a local taxidermist and his contest partner, a plumber from Boise who is originally from Russia and is new to coyote hunting but a devoted waterfowler; they are discussing the glories of the oxbows of the Snake River near Marsing. The taxidermist tells me that he’s in the derby to save a fawn or two by killing coyotes, and if he can do that, it doesn’t matter if he wins. Former government trapper Layne Rio Bangerter and his partner Mike Svedin are at the back of the line. Someone remarks that Bangerter has just been appointed as a natural resources advisor to Idaho’s new governor, Butch Otter, which is no surprise, since Bangerter held the same post for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo for more than two years. In a brief conversation, Bangerter will tell me, “We are normal Idahoans here, and we want animals to hunt, fish and trap. And we want to keep Idaho the way it is.”

Everybody’s kids are running the place hard, marveling at the raffle booty spread out on the long tables: the bags and buckets of calls and scents, headlamps and camo-gear and hats and copies of the glossy magazine Predator Xtreme. (Lead story: “In-Your-Face Bears: Could You Survive?”) On a table near the door is an old Mauser-action rifle with one of the original Unertl sniper scopes mounted on it; most visitors, including me, study it with fascination. In general, though, the talk tonight is of wolves, hunting and politics, three subjects that, for SFW, and for so many people around the West, are like three pieces of clay, worked and kneaded together into a single smooth entity.

After a barbecue supper, the presentations and calling contests begin. Larry Lansdowne, a sales rep for Quaker Boy, a call and hunting-gear maker, is here to demonstrate some calling techniques and offer up his advice on how to kill coyotes, foxes and bobcats in tomorrow’s derby. Lansdowne is a fan of cowboy-action shooting — hand-gunners who use period-piece weapons from the 1800s in fast-paced competitions — and he looks the part, heavy-set, with long graying hair and a black cowboy hat that has a hatband made of dozens of elk ivories. He tests a few different calls. “You got a dog (coyote) out there at a mile, you can challenge …” he says, making the call howl. “You can go to a ki-yi,” he barks fast, “or you can go to a hurt pup,” and then he whines.

“A female coyote will get real mama-ish if she thinks somebody’s hurting her pup,” he says. “People ask what this call is, or that one, and really, it’s either something barking or something dying.” He makes a long dying rabbit squeal. “Follow that with a quick bark. Make ’em think there’s food, and somebody else is getting it.”

Once the predators are called in, Lansdowne notes, shot placement isn’t particularly important. “You are going for a straight harvest here. It’s about the numbers, and the more you take out of here, the better it will be,” he says. “Don’t be tentative, don’t get discouraged. Even if you fail all day long, it still was better than going to work. It’s about being able to enjoy Mother Earth and the things she’s putting out there for us to use.”

As promised, the picking of the ticket for the grand prize comes at the end of the evening. SFW member Richard Scott holds the winning ticket. He and a partner will be headed to hunt wolves with BOSS Outfitters in Alberta, where, as one unsuccessful contestant remarked, “There are plenty of ’em, and you can shoot as many as you want.”

The group disperses into the cold night air of the parking lot, in a whirl of conversation and the rattling start-up of big diesel pickups, running lights glowing orange. Everyone would be back near Marsing in 24 hours, to meet at the Homedale Rod and Gun Club and see who had been most successful at the business of killing all the predators that were legal to hunt.

In 1993, when Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife first appeared, Utah wildlife and wildlife habitat were in trouble.

“Wildlife was going down,” says SFW founder Don Peay of Bountiful, Utah, who has been called “the Don of Wildlife” by the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Our fish and game department was totally out of touch with the Legislature, with sportsmen, even with the governor. There was a failure to address habitat restoration on our public lands, a failure to address predator control. There were so many challenges, and our game and fish director actually made the decision to abandon hunting, and move toward watchable wildlife.”

Former Utah Fish and Game Director John Kimball, who was in the agency at the time, said a convergence of factors was working against wildlife. “Our deer numbers were way down, and we were looking at really having to reduce our big game licenses, which meant we were looking at losing all that license money,” he said. “Especially from our sales of nonresident deer licenses.” The low deer numbers were, in part, the fault of the agency’s management, Kimball said.

At the same time, a coalition of groups, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, was involved in an attempt to purchase two remote wildlife-rich ranches in the Book Cliffs area, near Vernal.

“A bunch of what I would call ultra-right-wing cattlemen went in and hammered the fish and game (department) and said, ‘If you have the money to buy ranches for wildlife, you have too much money.’ Then they went to the Legislature and got fish and game’s budget cut even more,” Peay says.

It was a defining moment for Peay. He believed that Utah was giving up on something — not just the Book Cliffs purchase, or wildlife, but the state’s long hunting heritage — that most residents still valued but were not organized enough to defend. “We had cattlemen all over Utah who did not want to see larger deer and elk herds. At the same time, we were seeing successful moves by animal-rights groups to shut down predator control and a rising anti-hunting sentiment in the cities,” Peay says. “We needed a group that could restore the game and the hunting in Utah. We could let other groups worry about the spotted owls and the desert tortoises.

“Not that those things are not important.”

Since its founding, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has calved into two entities that have a common board of directors — Sportsmen for Habitat, a nonprofit charity, and the original Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a nonprofit recreational club. The Utah-based SFW looks forward to the day when there’s no need to travel to Canada to hunt wolves. SFW’s members, in fact, are ready to start the wolf hunt, right now, in Idaho. So are their counterparts at SFW-Wyoming. There is a new branch in New Mexico, and SFW hopes to start others.

With close to 10,000 members and a 2005 budget of over $1.3 million, SFW is the largest and by far the most powerful wildlife group in Utah. Its two-part structure is also unique among wildlife groups. According to SFW Treasurer Byron Bateman, the split was “part of Don’s (Peay’s) original plan. It was set up so that if we needed to, we could do a lot of lobbying for our interests.” In the early days of SFW, Bateman explained, lobbying was a big part of their work. “But not so much now,” he said. “We have our relationships built, and we can do the same thing with just a phone call.” The money from members’ dues and other sources can still be used for lobbying, but more of it is earmarked for the group’s magazine, Sportsmen’s Voice, and to pay a small number of staffers.

Sportsmen for Habitat has no dues-paying members, Bateman said. It is simply the tax-deductible arm of the group. In Utah, at least, it stays very busy. Last year, Sportsmen for Habitat was awarded the first-ever Kevin Conway Award (named in honor of the former Utah Division of Wildlife Resources director, who passed away in 2004) for its support of Utah’s Watershed Initiative, which included extensive (and ongoing) work restoring native sagebrush habitats across the state.

SFW has stirred controversy in all the states where it operates with its unapologetic demands for maximizing big game herds and hunting opportunities through transplanting species like bighorn sheep into new ranges; changing hunting regulations to favor trophy-sized deer and elk; and spending money on predator control, not just to protect livestock, as it has been traditionally done across the West, but to protect and increase wild game herds and game birds.

In Utah, Peay has been at the center of the storm, in no small part because he plays an unprecedented role in lobbying the Utah Legislature for policies that he and his followers say will foster a stronger hunting culture and more game animals in his state. Peay’s many political contributions go to candidates not generally associated with wildlife conservation, such as Republican congresswomen Barbara Cubin of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, among others. Peay is also a strong supporter of President George W. Bush; he’s visited with the president both at his ranch in Texas and in Washington, D.C., and penned articles for SFW’s in-house magazine with headlines like “Conservation George W. Bush Style.”

Peay’s critics call him arrogant, “a bull,” and many Utahns interviewed for this story asked me not to use their names, saying “people are afraid of him.” And yet, almost everyone interviewed said that Peay and SFW had a powerful record of success in working on behalf of wildlife, wildlife habitat and hunting in Utah, a state where, less than 20 years ago, it seemed as though the citizenry and the Legislature were content to let their wildlife and heritage of hunting fade away forever.