Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News
The Mule Deer Foundation kicked in $200,000 it raised at a banquet.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah success story has been highlighted in a national publication detailing key milestones accomplished in wildlife and fish habitat restoration across the country.

In its landmark publication, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service details accomplishments made through the Wildlife and Sports Restoration Program, which it hails as the cornerstone of fish and wildlife conservation in North America. The report is in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which was born in the Dust Bowl era out of concerns to protect and restore wildlife populations — from wild turkey to deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

As an example, it points to Kentucky's efforts to re-establish elk herds, which had been wiped out in that state since the 1850s. By 2009, through the use of the federal moneys generated by a tax assessed on hunting equipment, the animals' populations had reached the target goal of 10,000.

Through these taxes levied on hunting and later fishing equipment through the Dingell-Johnson Act, more than $700 million is raised each year and funneled to habitat conservation and outdoor recreation projects.

“All Americans, whether or not they hunt or fish, benefit from this program. There’s a good chance that the trail they hike, the park where they watch birds, and the wildlife they see every day wouldn’t exist without the funding provided by hunters and anglers,” said Hannibal Bolton, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“In addition to providing conservation benefits, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funds — along with revenue from state fishing and hunting licenses — support local economies and generate thousands of jobs.”

In Utah, the state Division of Wildlife Resources has used a portion of the money over the years to acquire about 60,000 acres that make up the Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

Situated in the foothills of Tabby Mountain in Duchsense County, the property is prime winter range for thousands of deer and elk, said Randall Thacker, the state's assistant wildlife manager in the northeast region.

"I've sat in one particular area and personally counted 1,300 elk in one spot."

The area also contains leks — gathering grounds for the greater sage grouse  — which the state has been aggressively trying to keep off the Endangered Species list.

"It is a critical area for the sage grouse," Thacker said. "They're really pretty and really unique."

Thacker added that the Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area is the biggest wildlife management area in the state and boasts one of the most popular, sizable deer herds in Utah.

"It is such an important place for wildlife and a huge migration corridor. We would not be able to maintain the number of deer there without this area — probably only a fourth of what we have there now."

Most recently, the state sold a game farm in Roosevelt that was initially paid for with sportsmen's dollars. Thacker said the property was used to hunt pheasant and chukar, but homes have begun to sprout up around it, making its use as a shooting area undesirable.

From the sale of that property, the division was able to negotiate the purchase of 5,700 acres from the Allan Smith family for about $981,000. The Mule Deer Foundation kicked in $200,000 it raised at a banquet.

"It turned out to be a real benefit for everyone," Thacker said. "The foundation was just really good to work with us. There are certain groups that put their money where their mouth is."

The property had been in the Smith family shortly after it was homesteaded in the early 1900s.

"The Smiths had a real interest in seeing the land stay open for wildlife."

Thacker added that there has been pressure to develop the land by subdividing it into lots for trophy homes.

The problem, he said, is that development and deer herds don't mix well, with homeowners who often clear away native vegetation that supports wildlife and the deer getting into haystacks or crops.

"Those ranchettes and cabins come with dogs and a lot of roads," he said, "and with changes to the nature of vegetation, that pretty much wipes out the wildlife value of the property."

With the addition of the acreage to the wildlife management area, Thacker said that property will now be preserved for generations to come.

"Allen Smith was a real force to make sure it was preserved. They definitely could have sold it for more."

Over the years, with the estimated $125 million in wildlife restoration money the division has received, it has been able to acquire about 40 pieces of property for its wildlife habitat portfolio, Thacker said. Another $127 million has been funneled to Utah for fish restoration programs.

"Obviously, everybody in the state benefits from this money. It's been a great thing for wildlife."

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