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In the News: Wharton: Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife about wrong kind of bucks

Salt Lake Tribune March 18, 2013 (posted 3/19/13)

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By Tom Wharton

When Don Peay founded Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife in 1993, few could have dreamed that it would blossom into a powerful multi-million operation with a presence in seven western states and in national politics.

The group formed as Utah mule deer populations were crashing. Peay, an avid hunter, decided to do something about it.

There is little doubt that Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has done much good. It has spent money to purchase or improve wildlife habitat and raised $7.2 million for conservation over the past 10 years. It recently wrote a check for more than $1 million to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Such expenditures bring the organization sway with state wildlife managers. Some think the relationship might be too cozy. Money and political clout often give the impression that SFW and not the DWR is in charge of wildlife in Utah.

Consider a 2010 Utah Wildlife Board meeting when SFW president Byron Bateman presented then-DWR director Jim Karpowitz with a check for $391,000 moments before the Wildlife Board passed a controversial proposal largely crafted and promoted by SFW to reduce the number of deer-hunting permits by at least 13,000.

I fear that the organization has become increasingly more about making money for its officers, commercializing Utah’s wildlife, and aligning itself with groups such as off-highway vehicle organizations and right-wing politicians intent on Utah taking over federal public lands. How these things help wildlife or the average hunter escapes me.

Some of SFW’s fundraising efforts, especially those taking advantage of hunters’ mythical fears that the main reason for the decline in big game herds, especially mule deer, is predation. Damn the biology or the fact that the reasons deer herds are down are far more complex than predation. Advocating killing wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears to save deer, elk and other big game is a great way to raise funds and gain members. No matter that wiping out predators is ecologically questionable and, except in a few specific units, not particularly effective.

The organization successfully lobbied the Utah Legislature to appropriate general tax dollars as well as raise hunting license fees to increase bounties on coyotes, encouraging the wanton killing of coyotes everywhere. I can’t find a single reputable biologist who thinks this action will help deer herds. But the simplistic solution sounds good to uninformed legislators and hunters and helps raise money.

The Utah Legislature also gave an offshoot SFW organization called Big Game Forever a second $300,000 contract to lobby Washington politicians to keep wolves out of Utah. Though a few stray wolves may have wandered into northern Utah, there is no evidence wolves are going to ever be a major problem in the state. There has been no detailed report as to how Big Game Forever spent the first $300,000. The group is not registered to lobby in Washington, D.C.

SFW and its officers also donate money freely to dozens of politicians.

One of the recipients was State Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who received $6,500 in campaign contributions from Peay and Ryan Benson, co-founder of Big Game Forever. Okerlund, the Senate Majority Leader, recommended spending $300,000 the past two years on Big Game Forever’s anti-wolf lobbying campaign.

Figuring out just how much Peay and other officers make in salary or consulting fees is challenging. Money is moved back and forth from non-profits to private corporations among groups such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Sportsmen for Habitat, Big Game Forever, Arctic Red River Outfitters, Peay Consulting, World Trophy Outfitters, the Full Curl Society, the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, seven state chapters of SFW and the Mule Deer Foundation — which is part of a major wildlife convention where the state gives conservation organizations wildlife tags to auction. The groups get to keep 10 percent of the proceeds for administrative costs. In the case of application fees raised at the 2012 Western Hunting and Conservation Expo, hunters pay in hopes of drawing a difficult-to-get hunting tag, SFW and the Mule Deer Foundation reported $613,572 in expenses of holding the drawing, with the remaining $443,417 actually going to conservation projects.

Has any of this helped big game in Utah? You be the judge.

The number of deer hunters afield dropped from 146,008 in 1993 when SFW was founded to 80,425 in 2011. The number of bucks killed dropped from 23,024 to 21,291. The number of antelope, moose and bison hunters and animals harvested also declined during that same time period.

The success stories are elk and bighorn sheep. Utah elk hunters have increased from 48,372 in 1993 to 57,241 in 2011, with the bull harvest going from 6,066 to 6,923. The bighorn sheep harvest jumped from 17 in 1993 to 54 in 2011.

While SFW and its many subsidiaries might do some good for wildlife, those who donate thinking they are helping big game should realize that many of these groups’ officers have a heavy financial stake in the operation. And the continued commercialization of what is the public’s wildlife should cause concern that herds are being managed not on the basis of sound biology but in ways to produce more cash.

wharton@sltrib.com

This story was published in the Salt Lake Tribune.
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Please write a letter to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune today, thanking them for this article and expressing outrage at Utah’s tax dollars being spent to enrich Don Peay and his cronies at the expense of education, wolves and the Endangered Species Act. Click here for the first article in this series, and scroll down the page for letter to the editor talking points.

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Follow this link for a list of Utah Representatives and how they voted on the amendment to remove the $300,000 for anti-wolf lobbying from the budget.

Those who voted “yea”, voted in favor of having the $300,000 for anti-wolf lobbying removed. Please contact the Legislators who voted yea and thank them not supporting this taxpayer assault on wolves.  Contact information can be found here.

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You can also help by contacting the Governor and telling him this is an outrage.  Ask him to veto the budget bill as it stands with this anti-wolf lobbying appropriation.  Calls are most effective.

Governor Gary R. Herbert - 801 538-1000
gherbert@utah.gov
http://governor.utah.gov/goca/form_comment.html

When you call, simply say that you find this proposed allocation of your money to pay Don Peay to lobby against wolves morally reprehensible and economically irresponsible. Tell him that you think the State would be better served by using this money for education and the Department of Environmental Quality. If you email, say the same thing and in the subject line of your message say in capital letters NO MONEY TO ATTACK WOLVES AND THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT! .

Thank you for taking action for these wonderful animals!

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Mexican gray wolf photo courtesy of Tallan Melton