SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday marked opening day of the Utah migratory bird hunt, but many participants were forced to flock elsewhere because of the federal government's closure of three national wildlife refuges in the state.
The biggest impact came from the government shutdown of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge west of Brigham City, which is a prime spot for hunting ducks and other birds because of its walk-in access and utility for young hunters.
A national teleconference Monday sounded the urgent appeal by seven major sportsmen groups urging the federal government to get back to governing, or risk dooming hunting and angling-dependent communities to financial shortfalls in the months to come.
"The three months of hunting season are like Christmas to many of these rural communities," said Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. "The hardship of closed gates and closures is not just being felt by hunters but on local communities. There is a real and tangible impact on these rural communities."
Coordinated by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the teleconference underscored the shutdown's threats to the $86 billion spent by hunters and anglers annually — part of a $646 billion outdoor recreation economy.
"If you are a hunter, the beginning of October is prime time," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the partnership.
At the state-run Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, the Saturday car count was 110 more than what they are used to seeing, said Rich Hansen, with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
"The people who were displaced from Bear River were very vocal and upset about it," he said.
Hansen figures there were an extra 200 hunters on the ground, which in a low-water year on the Great Salt Lake ecosystem just confounds the potential for crowding.
"With the Great Salt Lake level being what it is, there is not a lot of space for them to spread out," he said.
Farmington Bay's assistant manager, Jason Jones, said it was the busiest hunting weekend he's seen in the nine seasons he has worked there. "Farmington is already the busiest in the state, but we were hammered."
Those kind of conditions can lead to a diminished experience for hunters who are not only looking that great shot, but a good chunk of solitude.
"This is going to force pressure on state wildlife management agencies," said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former director of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There's going to be dissatisfaction, folks who say they don't want the crowding and hang it up for the season. This is not going to be good for the state agencies and it is not going to be good for hunters on the ground," Williams said.
The state hosts two other national wildlife refuges that are also closed due to the shutdown — Ouray near Vernal and Fish Springs in Tooele County.
Barry Crose, regional director of Ducks Unlimited, said the shutdown imposes uncertainty and anxiety on an integral part of Utah's economy that is captive of timed hunts — and a narrow window for adjacent communities to make money.
"The hunts come and go, the birds come and go," he said. "I, myself — my favorite hunting spot is at Bear River. I ended up going over to Strawberry Reservoir because I could not hunt at the refuge. It does affect a lot of hunters who use our wetlands to hunt and recreate."
Crose said the wetlands conservation work done by Ducks Unlimited is continuing, but conference organizers stressed Tuesday that important habitat conservation projects will go wanting in the wake of the shutdown.
Williams pointed out that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has had an overall 17 percent cut in the past two years.
"That is significant. That is not fat, that is right to the bone," he said.
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