1 of 3
Joe Deluca, Deseret News
After about two hours of public comment, the Utah Division of Wildlife Board voted 4-2 to approve an option that divides the state into 29 separate hunting areas (based on known deer herds). The motion did give the DWR flexibility if some of those areas need to be combined or split.

Sportsmen will have fewer opportunities to hunt mule deer in 2012, and a permit to do so could cost more.

As the deer population declines, wildlife officials and sportsmen struggle to protect both the animals and the opportunities for sportsmen.

After about two hours of public comment, the Wildlife Board voted 4-2 Thursday to approve option two of four, which divides the state into 29 separate hunting areas, based on known deer herds. The motion did give the state Division of Wildlife Resources flexibility if some of those areas need to be combined or split.

While a few people spoke in favor of the status quo, most wanted a change.

"If we continue doing the same things, we'll get the same results," said Lance Roberts of Monroe.

Every year, the state sells more than 91,000 permits to deer hunters, but with Thursday's change, that could drop by about 13,000.

"It's been a very hot topic," said board member Jake Albrecht, who represents the state's southern region. "I think in the long run, the board here is very concerned about our deer herd statewide."

Right now, and next fall, the state hunt is divided into five geographic regions.

Currently, Division of Wildlife Resources biologists study mule deer herds in 29 different units, but they make hunting recommendations based on the five hunting regions.

In addition to fewer opportunities for hunters, the change also means a loss in revenue for the division.

Greg Sheehan, administrative services director for DWR, said the reductions translate into a loss of $404,600. Currently, about 90 percent of mule deer permits are sold to residents, while 10 percent are sold to nonresidents.

The board cannot raise the cost of permits, but it can recommend the Legislature do so. The DWR can also cut programs or services to deal with the decline in revenue.

Another change is the buck-to-doe ratio that will determine the number of permits sold to hunters.

After each hunt, biologists go out into the state's regions and study the deer populations. They look for an average of 15 bucks to 100 does statewide in order to maintain the number of permits allowed.

With the change, biologists will be managing each of the 29 units with an 18 bucks-to-100 does ratio in each region. That means permits could go down in one region but up in another, as the numbers are no longer averaged.

That change doesn't necessarily affect the size of the herds, but it does mean sportsmen will see more bucks when they make their way into the backcountry.

The hope in dividing the state into smaller hunting areas is that biologists can work with sportsmen and preservation groups to make decisions about that unit separate from the rest of the state.

The board made the decision in front of about 100 members of the public, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to let their feelings about the issue be known. It was not the plan recommended by the DWR. The DWR had recommended option one, which specified the general hunting season would continue with the five regions Utah currently uses. However, areas within a region that have very low buck-to-doe ratios would be managed separately from the rest of the region. It would have reduced the number of hunters by about 7,000.

Speakers asked the Wildlife Board to consider issues like predator management, habitat degradation and what reducing the number of opportunities to hunt will do to the future of the sport.

"Every unit is different," said Wade Heaton. "(DWR) needs better tools to manage these units. We can't give them a machete. They need a scalpel."

He and a number of other speakers asked the board not to cloud Thursday's decision with the many issues that are intertwined with managing the hunt.

One speaker pointed out that in 1983, hunters harvested 82,000 deer. In 2009, about 22,000 deer were harvested.

The obvious conclusion to draw from those numbers is that deer herds have diminished significantly in the past 27 years.

Some who were opposed to the plan adopted saw it as the DWR's decision to favor trophy hunters over beginners.

Tony Abbott, a hunting expert who co-hosts "Inside the Outdoors" with Steve Brown on 1320 AM, shared with the board a personal experience he'd had with his daughter.

"She got the hiccups she was so excited," he said of their hunt in Arizona. "Do you want to take that away from her?"

Many speakers, and also some board members, expressed concerns about how to keep young people involved in hunting amid diminishing opportunities.

In other decisions, the board voted to extend the 2011 rifle buck deer hunt season from five days to nine days.

In 2012, general-season archery hunters will no longer be allowed to hunt across Utah. Instead, they'll obtain permits for a specific unit.

The board voted to study the Dedicated Hunter program, as well. All of the decisions, as well as audio of Thursday's meeting, can be found at www.wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/board-minutes.html.

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com