Predator hunters for the environment

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has protected a lot of Western land and species. It’s also killed a lot of coyotes (and can’t wait to go after some wolves).

  • Kevin Smith, a member of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho, holds a cougar he shot in Owyhee County

  • Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife founder Don Peay, left, and former Utah Jazz great Karl Malone with an Alaskan grizzly

  • Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, at a presentation of a check for $1 million from Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife for the purchase of wildlife habitat near Salt Lake City

  • An SFW habitat restoration project near Holden, Utah

  • Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho Board Chairman Scott Allan, with his two sons, and a wolf he shot in Northwest Territories while hunting sheep

  • Bob Wharff with a pronghorn he shot near Evanston, Wyoming

  • Winter on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming

  • A Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho rally in Boise wrapped up the petition drive to get wolves delisted in Idaho. Gov. Butch Otter spoke and promised "to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself"

  • Participants in the Predator Derby pose with their harvest


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From reading the newspapers, a visitor could be convinced that most Westerners spend their lives worrying about the fate of the land and its wild inhabitants. Almost nothing could be further from the truth. In the West, as in almost every other part of the U.S., the vast majority of the financial support for wildlife, wildlife habitat and the state fish and game agencies that work to protect and sustain them comes from hunting and fishing licenses, the purchase of special hunting permits, taxes on firearms and ammunition, and the sale of federal and state waterfowl hunting stamps.

Attempts to set up new sources of money for wildlife, especially for non-game species, have failed. Most spectacular among the failures is the U.S. Senate’s refusal in 2000 to allow a vote on the hugely popular Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would have provided $3.1 billion annually for 15 years, drawn from taxes on outdoor gear such as backpacks and hiking boots as well as from revenues from oil and gas royalties. The funds would have been directed to help states with projects that ranged from restoring non-game wildlife to protecting coastal marshes and wetlands. CARA failed, attacked by private-property-rights extremists and their not-so-secret industrial backers, who claimed the money would be used to add to the federal estate or to compete with private interests for resources. The outdoor industry also is said to have opposed the act, unwilling to have the prices for its goods elevated, however slightly.

Year after year, a declining number of sportsmen have provided the funding to preserve wildlife and habitat. Hunting groups — the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the North American Foundation for Wild Sheep, and others — have brought money and carefully cultivated political will to partner with The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts to protect the critical big-game habitat that also serves as a redoubt for other wild creatures.

Anti-hunting groups cite studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing that “watchable wildlife” interests — non-hunting tourists drawn to parks and rural areas — spend more on their trips and are an increasing presence, while expenditures by hunters are declining. But this does not negate a simple reality: The majority of the wildlife being watched by non-hunters has been restored and sustained by hunter dollars, paid through the decades into a variety of revenue streams.

“The non-game wildlife people don’t have an emotional or financial chip in this game. Don Peay has connected the dots between industry, outfitters and the sportsmen — including the very high-end sportsmen — and he’s delivering that constituency to conservation, on the ground,” says Amanda Smith of The Nature Conservancy in Utah, which has become a partner with SFW in habitat-protection projects. “It is all so much more tangible than anything that people who just say they love the wildlife are doing.”

Peay, who has a background in chemical engineering and an MBA from Brigham Young University, describes himself, variously, as a management and financial consultant, a real estate developer and a businessman. He holds no title at SFW, but works for the group as a consultant. It is obvious that he has a gift for connections. When reached for this interview, he was on the way to interior Alaska to hunt grizzly bears with his good friend Karl “The Mailman” Malone, the legendary former Utah Jazz power forward. Sources say that Peay is a friend of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has represented Utah since 1977. Peay’s political contributions to the 2004 George W. Bush campaign were sufficient to earn him a place on the list of Bush “Pioneers,” a status reserved for those who raised $100,000 or more.

John Gale, a regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation, has followed the work and expansion of SFW in New Mexico and in Utah. He offers one key to SFW’s attraction for many Westerners: “It (SFW) is so conservative that the membership does not have to worry about the dreaded ‘greenie’ label, which is so terrible to be now, in the West.”

Peay insists SFW is “neither an elephant or a donkey” when it comes to politics. “But our membership is probably 75 percent Republican. What would you expect in Utah?” he says. “I’ve seen these liberal groups that want to fight the Republicans, and they get nothing done. We are seeing this rise of the Democrats in the West, and they are courting the sportsmen’s vote, and that’s good.”

Most of Peay’s political contributions are targeted to Republican politicians, and sometimes it seems as though SFW toes the Republican line. When asked about the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which would have prevented road development in what remains of the nation’s public wilderness, Peay says only that SFW has not taken a stand on this perennial controversy, which has divided many hunting groups. “We leave that up to our individual chapters to decide,” he said.

But on the issue of public lands in general and their value to the future of hunting and fishing, Peay and SFW have taken an unequivocal stand in opposition to some Republican policies. When the Bush administration presented a precedent-setting plan to sell off 300,000 acres of federal land, Peay and SFW were adamantly opposed. SFW has also bucked entrenched so-called “wise-use” groups and advocated for more controls over all-terrain vehicle use on isolated public lands.

John Kimball, the former Utah game and fish director, says that one of the first successes of SFW was to push through the requirement for a two-thirds “supermajority” vote in the Legislature before changes could be made in laws or regulations affecting wildlife management. Such a rule was necessary, Kimball and many other Utahns have said, to keep an increasing urban population from dominating rural interests by referendum. “We were looking at states like California, where citizen referendums had been used to shut down trapping or cougar hunting, and we didn’t want to see that in Utah,” Kimball said.

Along with the supermajority requirement, SFW pushed a substantial increase in funding for the Utah fish and wildlife agency. The new funds have been parlayed into, among other projects, range and watershed restoration on public lands, the replanting of native grasses, and the halting of saltcedar and piñon-juniper invasions.

SFW/SFH has pushed hard on federal and state land managers to reverse massive losses — from fire suppression, grazing and development, including energy drilling — in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. That ecosystem sustains not only iconic Western game animals, such as mule deer, sage grouse and wintering elk, but also a host of other native species. The group’s close ties with then Bureau of Land Management director Kathleen Clarke and other Bush administration appointees are credited with getting the critical restoration work under way, at a time when the sagebrush steppe was just becoming recognized as one of the most important and endangered ecosystems in the West.

Such projects, like the supermajority requirement, have the support of the ranching community, because they increase forage for cattle as well as wildlife. This has created another bridge between SFW and ranchers, who as a group have been traditionally hostile to efforts to increase wildlife. And the increase in state funding allocated to wildlife is now a permanent part of the budget.

“We made the conservative argument that the money was an investment in the game and the future,” Peay says. But Kimball soon learned that SFW’s support can come with strings attached. “We wanted to fund a cougar study in central Utah, and SFW and the stockgrowers both seemed to think that if you had a cougar in hand, you didn’t put a radio collar on it, you killed it,” Kimball says. “We knew that if you had good habitat, that deer herds can weather some pretty adverse conditions, and we drew in a lot of different interests on the study. But SFW — which is a deer and elk group — still opposed it.”

The emphasis on — some would call it an obsession with — predator control sets SFW, and Peay, apart from almost every other sportsmen’s or conservation group in the West. “To think you can have a natural landscape with wolves and bears and other predators on it is romantic, but it’s not true,” Peay says. “As the West develops, predators will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Peay notes that studies on Utah’s Strawberry Reservoir showed that it was red foxes and ravens, not cattle grazing, that were responsible for low numbers of sage grouse in the area.

“They went in there and napalmed the red fox and the ravens,” and the sage grouse have rebounded, Peay says, without cutting cattle use.

It’s a model of management that Peay thinks can be applied far more widely, and he does not understand why it is so controversial. “How can anybody say they are an animal-rights advocate, and say they want grizzly bears or coyotes or wolves that eat all the production of the young, tearing these calves away from the elk?” he asks. “Where’s the animal rights in that?”

Peay believes that predator control will be one of the main tools needed to protect big game and other wildlife as oil and gas development expands on Western public lands, a process that he views as inevitable. “If you don’t think we need energy independence, you are wrong,” he says. “Wildlife is not as important as having 22-year-olds dying overseas for oil.

“They tell us that 20-acre well spacing is going to ruin wildlife in Wyoming, but we have mule deer right here in our neighborhood who live on less land than that,” Peay says. “Our bighorns that we re-introduced here in Utah were taken right off a strip mine in Alberta. They were walking around right next to the D-9 Cats (bulldozers).

“If you have to have wide-open spaces for wildlife, how come our biggest mule deer are right here in Salt Lake City?” Asked about largely undisputed government and energy-company studies showing a 46 percent decline in mule deer on the winter ranges of Wyoming where energy development was taking place, Peay replied, “How many of those were lost to predators? How many were lost because of rangeland deterioration? Our stand on oil and gas is that there has to be mitigation. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this, and I look at data very hard.

“There are a lot of biologists that are full of bullshit. They make up a lot of convenient lies to support their own agenda.”

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