The hunt is on.
By today's first light at 7:14 a.m., up to 400,000 hunters and family members could be heading for the hills in search of game.Over the general deer hunting season's 11-day run, an estimated 186,000 licensed hunters could bag about 50,000 bucks, said state Division of Wildlife Resources spokesman Steve Phillips.
Hunters who are state residents pay $15 for their licenses. Out-of-state hunters, estimated this year to number 20,000, pay $120. By the end of the first weekend, they and their family "support teams" will have spent an estimated $40 million on the deer hunt.
Last year, 165,000 hunters shot 51,710 bucks. But this year, the take could be somewhat lower because of the combined effects of a three-year drought and a high-country snowstorm that began late Thursday and early Friday.
Phillips said the drought has cut the deer population. And U.S. Forest Service representatives said that the recent rain and snow have made messes of many of the dirt roads favored by hunters.
"It kind of puts a damper on the hunt if you can't get in. On the other hand, chains and four-wheel drives can really tear up a lot of roads," said Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Jo Pollock.
Pollock said phones rang all day Friday in her office with calls from hunters asking about road conditions. Many of them said they might wait until Monday to start hunting when a warming trend is supposed to dry the state's weather and send temperatures into the 60s and 70s.
Still, the damage to Forest Service roads over the first hunting season weekend could end up costing "a couple of million" dollars to repair, she said.
The weather has already caused difficulties for the Salt Lake County sheriff's search and rescue unit in its efforts to find Jake Gradwohl, 28, a resident physician at University Hospital missing since Sunday in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The opening of the hunting season adds another set of concerns.
As always, the 40 members of the sheriff's search and rescue team are on alert to aid lost hunters or people who injure themselves or have heart attacks during the general deer hunting season, said Sgt. Gilbert Howard.
All of the search and rescue team's efforts, plus those of two teams from Idaho and Colorado, have been thrown behind the search for Gradwohl. Should a hunter need assistance, the team would have to be split, Howard said.
"We're prepared for it, but we're not sure the hunting is going to make that much difference" in the search for Gradwohl, Howard said, adding that the snowfall in the canyons could discourage all but the hardiest hunters this weekend.