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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If SFW’s stand on predator control is controversial, it is the group’s model for raising money in Utah that has garnered the most attention from more traditional wildlife advocates, especially those in the hunting community.

Since 1981, Utah, like other Western states, has offered special “set-aside” hunting permits, or tags, for coveted trophy animals like bighorn sheep rams, mountain goats, cougars, buck mule deer, bears and bull elk. The tags allow hunting in areas that may be otherwise restricted to provide animals a better chance of surviving to old (and, in trophy terms, impressive) age.

In 1981, a Utah tag for a single trophy bighorn ram sold at bid for $20,000. The money was used to reintroduce more bighorns to their traditional ranges. According to Alan Clark, wildlife section chief for Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, there are now 350 such special tags available each year for auction.

“We — fish and game — get back 30 percent of that money,” Clark said, with 60 percent going to whatever group holds the auction for use in conservation projects. (Ten percent is kept by the auctioning group to cover banquet costs and other overhead.) Clark says that the number of tags is kept to 5 percent of all tags issued to hunters in the state, so the money can be raised without the public feeling like its hunting rights are being sold to the highest bidder.

“We have to generate money for projects,” he said, “and we give the most tags to the groups that generate the most money with them.” The leading group in the past few years has been SFW, Clark said. The idea of raising money by selling what is a public resource is controversial, Clark acknowledges, and his agency has tried to find a balance. “SFW pressured us to make more tags available,” he explains, “but we think that what we have now, where we set aside a maximum of 5 percent of the tags for this kind of fund raising, is working.”

Even so, the program remains controversial in Utah, both because it represents the privatization of a public resource, and, more important to many average sportsmen, the set-aside tags come out of the finite pool of big game licenses.

The money raised by tag auctions has been impressive — more than $10 million since 2001, most of it spent on hundreds of habitat projects that would not have been funded otherwise. And the numbers of game animals in Utah have been steadily increasing, at least in part because of those projects.

At the January 2007 Western Hunting and Conservation Expo held in Salt Lake City — which was sponsored by SFW, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep — the high bid for a single bighorn ram tag went for the record-breaking sum of $80,000. The event may have been the single most successful wildlife fund-raiser ever held. According to SFW’s magazine, Sportsmen’s Voice, the event raised more than $12 million for conservation projects in Utah and surrounding states.

The idea that SFW wants to corner the market on trophy big-game tags dogs the group as it expands into other states. Bob Wharff, who leads SFW-Wyoming, came to his job after working as a wildlife biologist at Utah’s sprawling Deseret Ranch. Wharff says that the set-aside tags and auctions are one of the first things that Wyoming hunters — especially game wardens — want to talk to him about.

“Where we’ve run into problems is where people misunderstand the model created in Utah,” he explained. “I have wardens here in Wyoming kind of threaten me, telling me that if I wanted to try and use those set-aside licenses here, they would do everything to try and stop us. But I tell them I came to Wyoming because I wanted to live here, not because I wanted to change it.”

Actually, Wharff does not have to spend time defending fund-raising models to increase SFW’s presence in Wyoming. He just has to find a bunch of hunters or cattlemen and explain SFW’s position on the wolf issue.

“We’re not going to sit back and let hunting be replaced by predators, which is what we see happening now. I have maintained for a long time that Wyoming has the right to manage wolves in a different way than other states, because we have the lion’s share of Yellowstone National Park, and the park is called, in studies by the government, a ‘wolf nursery,’ ” Wharff says. “This is not a species (wolves) that ever really needed protection. I believe that wolf reintroduction had nothing to do with re-establishing the wolf to its native range. It was about eliminating public-lands grazing and hunting.”

The traditional environmental groups that oppose letting the states control wolf population levels have not generally acknowledged a powerful irony: It was the decades of hunter dollars flowing to state and federal game agencies that restored enough of the great North American game herds to provide the prey base supporting wolf re-introduction. Many such environmental groups — as many hunters have suspected and as Don Peay so often says — really are “anti-hunting groups cloaked in green.”

In Wyoming, the pro-wolf stance of most environmentalists has only strengthened SFW, which claims to have gathered between 2,000 and 2,500 members since it came to the state in February of 2003. Those gains make it the second-largest wildlife group in the state, behind the venerable Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which claims 5,000 to 6,000 members.

“The Sierra Club, all those organizations, their contributions pale in comparison to what hunters have done for conservation,” Wharff said. “And those groups have gotten so extreme. The common man is no longer able to understand what these environmental organizations want. They never offer any solutions. They are so far removed from the mainstream. …

“You can say what you want about us, like us, hate us, whatever; we have a can-do attitude. This is a group that is for people who hunt and fish, and who want to see their grandchildren hunt and fish.”

Critics respond that a healthy landscape is not just a farm producing more game and fish for sportsmen to take. Suzanne Stone, a Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, explained: “Most hunters that I know value the overall ecosystem, and how it maintains its health, and I don’t know how you can miss the basic fact that predators are part of that.” Stone says her contacts with SFW have been limited, but she knows the group is a political force. Like other wildlife advocates, she hopes that the force can be harnessed for good.

“The biggest concern I have with SFW is that there is no value associated with healthy ecosystems,” she says. “And their members are being offered actual misinformation about science and how these ecosystems function. And some of the most egregious effects on wildlife come from misinformation.”

Stone also worries that sportsmen are not really represented by some of the SFW’s more extreme anti-predator rhetoric. “The most extreme voices are being heard loudest now, and I know so many hunters who do value wildness and predators — we hear from them all the time,” she says. “But they are not heard in the media. They were not down at the anti-wolf rally at the Statehouse.”

To some extent, SFW has gained popularity by avoiding the most controversial conservation issues in Wyoming. The state is at the heart of the explosion in public-lands energy development in the West. There are a host of contentious issues: the loss of winter range and migration corridors in the famed Green River Valley; the largest energy project in U.S. history, now under way in the Powder River Basin; and the 20,000 oil and gas wells being developed in the Red Desert, the winter range for the nation’s largest pronghorn herd and the home of the only desert elk herd known. So far, however, SFW-Wyoming has issued no position statements regarding energy development.

Wharff says he has not felt the pressure to step in yet. “We had Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range (a group opposed to drilling in those mountains) come to us and ask us to sign on to say that there should be no oil and gas development in the Wyoming Range, and that line was too hard. You ban that, and then what would be next? Ban hunting?” Wharff says. “I told the outfitters who signed on that they were nuts. What if you push those guys off, and then the next user group that is banned is the outfitters?”

Wharff says he would like the development to slow down. “But most of our guys don’t think this is as big a threat as some other people do. Most people that hunt and fish are utilitarian,” he says. “They believe in using things, and the concept of renewable resources.”

But there are plenty of Wyoming sportsmen who disagree with Wharff on that point, given the energy development they have already witnessed and its impacts on big game and landscapes. The powerful Wyoming Guides and Outfitters Association is a part of Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range, and association member Terry Pollard says his group is far more worried about energy development on these pristine lands than by the possibility that someone would try to ban hunters from using them. “I don’t think that’ll ever be a problem,” Pollard said. “But if they go up there with those oil and gas rigs, they’ll devastate the range. We’re about multiple use, as we’ve always said, but if industry goes in there and does what they’ve done elsewhere in Wyoming, it’ll just be a single use. All the others will be gone.”

Instead of contesting energy development, SFW-Wyoming has concentrated on an issue that first brought it to the state: the feed grounds maintained for Wyoming’s elk herds.

In an effort to maintain elk herds without having the animals devour the forage and hay needed for cattle, Wyoming created the first feeding ground for elk in 1912, the iconic National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. The idea was expanded over the following decades, driven by a 1939 law that required the state wildlife agency to pay ranchers for damage to their lands caused by wild elk. There are currently 22 state-run feed grounds scattered in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. About 20,000 wild elk winter on these feed grounds, sustained on a diet of hay (6,000 to 9,000 tons every year) and alfalfa pellets purchased from local ranches.

Feeding wildlife to maintain abnormally high numbers has always seemed questionable to some. But when revenues for wildlife management depend on the sale of big game licenses, as they do in Wyoming, there is an incentive to keep herds as large as possible. For many years, the trade-off seemed acceptable. But brucellosis, a disease probably brought into the Yellowstone region by cattle around 1900, spread easily among the closely gathered feed-ground elk, reaching infection levels of more than 30 percent in one area. The rate of infection suggested that the feed grounds were time bombs, waiting for any number of diseases to arrive and, perhaps, spread to cattle herds.

“The wildlife professionals all felt that it was time to bite the bullet and phase out the feed grounds,” says Barry Reiswig, manager of the National Elk Refuge.

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