It's big bucks for a big buck
Many Utah deer hunters, worried they may not even see a buck (let alone the trophy they dream of), won't spend $35 for a permit. But an Illinois hunter is paying $81,000 for the right to hunt one buck mule deer this year.
"We had an arrangement that I would get him on the phone when the auction started and that he would tell me yes or no during the bidding. He just kept saying yes," said hunting guide Lane Torgerson, who made the bid for his client Saturday during the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW) banquet in Utah County. "He is looking forward to the opportunity to hunt in Utah."
The $81,000 bid is a new record for Utah's conservation hunting tag program and is $2,000 more than a hunter paid last year for an elk tag. The previous record was $80,000 for a bighorn sheep. The prior high for a mule deer statewide tag was $65,000.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) allows wildlife hunting groups to auction premiere hunting permits to the highest bidder to raise money for conservation programs.
Critics say the program caters to well-to-do hunters who can buy their way out of high odds lottery draws for premiere permits, but state officials say the money allows for conservation projects that would probably not be considered otherwise.
"If we get what the groups told us they could get, we will see about $1.4 million for conservation projects," said Alan Clark, wildlife section chief of the DWR. "If it wasn't for this money we would not be able to do anywhere near the projects we have been able to do so far. I've been looking at our project schedule and we have more than 25,000 acres of habitat restoration in the pipeline, thanks to money from this program."
To compensate the average hunter who cannot afford his life savings for a big game permit, the state offers the Sportsman permit. Hunters pay $5 to be entered in a lottery and, if their name is drawn, have the same run of the state opportunities as the highest bidder.
The odds for drawing the Sportsman permit for deer in 2004 was 1 in 5,240. Elk hunters faced the greatest odds of drawing the Sportsman tag with 5,637 entries for one permit
The DWR offers eight Statewide Conservation tags: one each for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, moose, Rocky Mountain goat and pronghorn. Add tags that restrict hunters to a certain geographic area and more than 300 permits are available for auction for everything from black bears to turkeys to sandhill cranes.
Money raised from the tags is earmarked to benefit respective species.
Clark said conservation permits raised $1 million in 2003 and that before Saturday's big money-maker he expected this year's total would be less because similar tags in other states are fetching much lower rates than in the past.
Utah's statewide elk tag is a good example. Last year it went for $79,000, but this year only $49,000 was bid on the tag at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) national banquet. RMEF had promised the DWR $80,000 for the 2004 tag and will make up the $31,000 difference.
Other prices for this year's statewide tags include $55,000 for desert bighorn sheep, $48,000 for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, $22,000 for moose, $17,500 for pronghorn.