SALT LAKE CITY — Todd Huntington, a dentist from a small town in central Utah, considered himself lucky. After two years of failing to secure a hunting permit in the state’s random drawing, he won a $35 state permit to shoot a male deer.
Once he was out among the fir and aspen forests of the Wasatch plateau this fall, he came upon a buck, aimed a muzzleloader and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. As the buck fled, Huntington glared at his gun and wondered when this chance might come again.
“When I was a teenager, anybody could buy a tag down to the hardware store and away you went," he said. “Now you have to have a degree in wildlife-speak to work your way through all the regulations to be able even to apply."
It especially bothers him — and other hunters — that those with means can buy public licenses through private outlets, paying thousands of dollars to move to the head of the line. More than any state in the West, Utah has expanded hunting opportunities for the well-to-do and has begun to diminish them for those seeking permits directly from the state.
State wildlife managers recognize this, but they say their motives are grounded in animal — if not social — welfare. Utah has embraced an increasingly free-market model as a way to raise more money for conservation.
Here is how it works: The state has enticed ranchers with an allotment of vouchers for lucrative hunting licenses that they can sell for thousands of dollars as part of a private hunt on their land. Many used to complain bitterly to state officials about elk and other game eating forage meant for their cattle.
The vouchers for hunting licenses, handed out for more than 10 years now, give them ample economic incentive to nurture big game on their land and not get frustrated with ranching and sell their land to developers.
Another program, smaller in scope but much more controversial, allows private nonprofit groups to auction off a few hundred licenses to the highest bidder or run their own drawing in exchange for supporting conservation projects. State wildlife managers say that with species like elk, the system is working to produce more game for all.
“We want the most wildlife we can have," said Greg Sheehan, the director of the State Division of Wildlife Resources. “The question is how we do that."
This new approach, some say, violates a century-old American ethic, articulated by Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter, that wildlife belongs to all, and not just to those with land or wealth.
“Money has definitely infiltrated our American hunting system," said David Allen, the president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, based in Montana. “Some of it’s totally ethical and legal and aboveboard. But is it all good? Maybe, maybe not."
The Utah group Sportsmen for Wildlife has benefited most from the auction of what are called “conservation permits," which sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The nonprofit Mule Deer Foundation works with this group in running the annual drawing of “convention permits."
Miles Moretti, the president of the foundation, said an auction “doesn’t violate the North American model. It’s just they use the tags in a different way to conserve game. Can a guy buy a tag every year for $200,000? Yes. So it’s not fair? Well, life’s not fair. This is a way to raise money for wildlife." For Utah residents like Huntington, who get permits in a blind draw directly from the state, the cost of a permit for a buck is modest, $35; the same permit for nonresidents in the draw is $263. Resident bull elk permits go for $280, or for $795 for out-of-state hunters. Hunters who do business with private ranchers can pay $10,000 and more for a permit to take one bull elk on prime private land.
The drawing held at the annual hunting expo by the two nonprofit groups gives the convention a high profile; attendees contribute $5 million or more to the economy of Salt Lake City. This convention drawing is popular; the $5 entry fees have raised about $1 million.
About 113 tracts of private ranchland have access to big-game permits for hunts on their land. As part of the arrangement, Utah requires them to open their land to public hunters who enter a general drawing.
The most important element of the system is getting ranchers to think differently about wildlife, said Kevin Bunnell of the State Division of Wildlife Resources.
“It turned people who used to be critical of wildlife into advocates for wildlife," he said.
This year, 3,209 licenses for deer, elk, moose or pronghorn were disbursed by ranchers — about 2 percent of the 142,000 licenses available for all game.
Tye Boulter, the president of the Utah Wildlife Cooperative, does see benefit in the conservation aspects of the ranch program and believes strongly in hunting rights on private property. But he remains troubled.
“Monetizing wildlife is a big deal," he said, adding that it was taking North American wildlife management backward, not forward. “Aristocrats, slowly, are getting more opportunity."