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Even as controversy lingers over whether hunting should be allowed on Antelope Island, the Utah State Parks Board has approved a new rule that will guide bighorn sheep and mule deer hunt regulations there in coming years.
Legislatively mandated hunting licenses for 2011 and this fall have been auctioned off for large amounts of money, but some in the public and the Legislature continue to oppose hunting as part of wildlife management on the largest island of the Great Salt Lake.
"I'm a hunter, but I just don't think Antelope Island is the right venue for a hunt," said Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, normally an ally of hunting groups that have pressed the issue.
Public outcry thwarted efforts by hunting groups to allow deer and bighorn hunts on the island for more than a decade, but the Legislature in 2010 and last year inserted intent language in an appropriations bill directing Utah State Parks and Recreation which manages Antelope Island to provide access to four hunters (two for each species) in 2011 and 2012.
Oda opposes the mandate as well as the method.
"Using intent language [in a larger nonrelated bill] does not make for good legislation," he said Thursday.
But, expecting that the Legislature will continue to pass such intent language for the hunts, the Utah State Parks board on Wednesday approved a rule to annually review recommendations from the Antelope Island wildlife biologists and take public input before setting the number of permits and hunting seasons.
"This turns management of the hunts to a biological basis rather than a political issue," said Utah State Parks director Fred Hayes on Thursday. "The board and I feel it is better than having the Legislature tell us again and again that we have to have the hunt. This, at least, better prepares us to manage the deer and bighorn."
Barbara Riddle, president and CEO of the Davis Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and representing the Friends of Antelope Island, told the board again Wednesday that the groups will continue to oppose hunts on the island.
Riddle said she appreciated that Utah State Parks is making an effort to base the hunt on biological considerations but wonders if it is necessary.
"There is the possibility that the hunts won't be mandated [in the future] by the Legislature," she said. "There has been a wildlife plan in existence and hunting would be allowed only as a last resort in control of animals," she said. "I don't think that has ever happened. I would support that plan based on biologists' input."
Bison have been hunted on Antelope Island for years, but because the state inherited the herd when it took over management, the animals are not considered wildlife. Bison numbers are controlled through an annual auction to buffalo ranchers and to the public for meat.
Steve Bates, the wildlife biologist on Antelope Island, had not seen the rule approved by the board, but he is ready to prepare recommendations. He said there are currently at least 504 mule deer on the island and 140 bighorn sheep. Park officials are using money generated from the sale of the existing hunting tags to create better habitat for all wildlife on the island to get a better understanding of the big game animals.
For instance, one of 20 mule deer outfitted with a radio collar on Antelope Island waded and swam its way across Farmington Bay to the Syracuse shoreline.
"It will be interesting to see if it comes back in the fall," he said. "The money that is being generated is helping us to do some good work out here."
Hunting on Antelope Island
R The first mule deer and bighorn sheep hunts on Antelope Island were held in the fall of 2011. Two permits for deer and two for sheep were provided; one each to the highest bidder at an auction and one of each to a general public drawing.
The 2011 mule deer tag on Antelope Island went for $265,000. The bighorn tag sold for $50,000. Permits for 2012 sold for $160,000 and $55,000, respectively. Ninety percent of the money goes back to Antelope Island State Park for wildlife habitat improvements on the island, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Bison have been hunted on the island for years.