Those of us who enjoy the traditions of hunting and fishing know that Utah has some of the finest fields, forests and waters in the nation. Whether hunting buck mule deer on the Book Cliffs, chasing elk in the Uintas or fishing for cutthroat trout in the Strawberry Reservoir, sportsmen can pursue a seemingly endless array of outdoor opportunities in the Beehive State.
Hunting in Utah wasn't always this exceptional. After a period of unregulated hunting of wildlife during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Utah legislature placed a ban on doe hunting in 1913 because settlers had nearly wiped out the state's mule deer herd. The ban lasted 37 years. After the herd was rebuilt through careful management and a strong conservation ethic, hunters experienced the highest mule deer populations on record during the 1950s and 60s. While drought and other factors have affected Utah's mule deer populations over the last 40 years, opportunities for high-quality hunting experiences in Utah are still some of the best in the nation, thanks to responsible big game management.
Despite a century of hard work from conservation-minded Utah hunters and wildlife managers, a developing threat now exists that may have major implications for the future of the state's big game herd. Poorly planned oil and gas development may significantly impact wildlife habitat and, consequently, decrease the quality of hunting in Utah.
To date, 3.9 million acres of Utah's public lands have been leased for energy development - much of it in prime big game habitat and without adequate planning for the needs of wildlife. After buying a lease, a company has a contractual right to develop the land for at least 10 years. Most of the leased public land in Utah hasn't yet seen the drill bit, but this soon could change. Given that many of these sites contain some of the finest deer and elk habitat in the world, the potential impacts of such development on our outdoor heritage are alarming.
The Books Cliffs are a perfect example. Despite the amazing terrain and world-class hunting found there, the Bureau of Land Management has sold a large portion of the area's mineral leases without the necessary upfront planning to reduce development impacts on big game and sage grouse. It's only a matter of time before the BLM receives applications for extensive road building and drill rig traffic within the Book Cliffs Management Area on crucial winter ranges for mule deer and elk.
What does this mean for Utah sportsmen? To see how developing natural gas the wrong way can impact hunting, look to Utah's neighbors. Outside of Pinedale, Wyo., unbalanced energy development on top of serious drought and habitat loss has resulted in shorter seasons, fewer available tags, and a lot of outdoorsmen wondering what happened to the area's legendary mule deer hunting.
Most folks agree that increasing our domestic energy supply should be a national priority. Oil and gas development, however, must be guided by science to ensure that the needs of fish and wildlife are met. Recent studies illustrate how poorly conceived energy development can seriously impact big game and sage grouse populations, as well as water quality.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a conservation organization working on behalf of sportsmen's interests, has developed a science-based approach to energy development called FACTS for Fish and Wildlife, which is designed to help conserve our hunting and fishing resources during energy development. If federal agencies use this model and plan for the needs of fish and wildlife while working closely with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the impacts on our outdoor traditions could be significantly reduced.
Fortunately, the BLM recently made the right decision and temporarily withdrew 46,000 acres of critical mule deer winter range in Utah from energy development due to habitat concerns. Hopefully, the agency will use this action as a stepping stone to begin planning energy development in a way that that minimizes impacts on fish, wildlife, and the public's hunting and fishing opportunities.
Now is the time to support a century of hard work by Utah conservationists and wildlife managers in order to maintain big-game herds that the public can enjoy. The BLM needs to balance the development of our energy resources with the maintenance of quality fish and wildlife habitat. Our hunting traditions are too precious to sacrifice to poorly planned energy development.
Joel Webster works to protect America's hunting and fishing traditions as a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.