Utah's wildlife division is gutshot

  • Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in an alfalfa field at his Loa, Utah, ranch

    Steve Griffin

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 habitat.

"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 membership.

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 200,000.

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.

In 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 $200,000.

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 hole.

"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 agency.

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 agency.

"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."

Still, in 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 designations.

"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 extremely troubling."

Southwestern Utah 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 necessary.

"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 back.

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 fast.

"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 horse."

The writer is a television reporter in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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