This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Robyn Waldrip has a passion for shooting very large wild animals. The Texas bodybuilder pays a handsome price to hunt trophy-caliber big game in Utah and around the world, the money going to wildlife agencies that use it to restore habitat.
But Waldrip's recent guided hunt for bighorn sheep on central Utah's Mount Nebo drew fire from fellow hunters when word got out that the trophy ram she bagged was shot in an area that was off-limits to the two hunters who bought statewide conservation tags this year.
Utah authorities declined to charge the hunter or her Wade Lemon Hunting guides because a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) employee had misinformed them that the Nebo unit was open, when by law it is closed to conservation tag holders on even-number years.
"DWR aggressively pursues those who knowingly or intentionally commit wildlife violations. In determining whether a person has knowingly or intentionally violated the law, one aspect that is examined is what information was available to the sportsman," DWR law-enforcement chief Rick Olson said in an email. "We regret this situation and have taken a hard look at how we distribute information to hunters and to our own employees. We are working to ensure this type of incident does not happen again in the future."
The incident provoked outrage among some hunters who feel DWR is shortchanging typical Utah hunters who have to wait a lifetime for an opportunity to hunt a trophy bighorn and are expected to follow the rules or risk losing hunting privileges.
"Ignorance has never been a defense, until now when a big-name outfitter that generates lots of dollars for the DWR through our sham of an 'auction tag' system makes the mistake. In these cases, the DWR swiftly sweeps it under the rug & looks the other way," wrote Cory Doyle of Lehi in a post on DWR's Facebook page.
According to Wade Lemon, however, he and his guides "memorized" this year's proclamation, a 60-page pamphlet DWR publishes under the title "Utah Big Game Field Regulations," prior to the hunt with Waldrip, who lives in Austin, Texas. The relevant section, found on Page 7, is silent on which years Mount Nebo is off-limits, while it did say Pilot Mountain and Antelope Island are closed to statewide tags.
"If it's not in the proclamation, I can't read minds," said Lemon, who is impatient with the criticism being leveled at his Holden-based guiding service on social media.
The pamphlet's opening page does caution hunters that the guidebook is merely a "quick reference" summary and advises visiting the DWR website to see the full set of rules. There, buried at the end of R657-41-2 is rule (k)(iv): "Central Mountain/Nebo/Wasatch West sheep unit is open to the [random draw] Sportsmen permit holder on even number years and open to the Statewide Conservation permit holder on odd number years."
For some hunters, the incident undermines the legitimacy of Utah's conservation tag program, in which sportsmen advocacy groups auction statewide tags for big dollars at fundraising events. Critics say the program offends the North American wildlife model that has worked well for the past century to preserve and manage a cherished resource. Under this model, wildlife is considered the property of all residents of the state and an equal opportunity to hunt it is a birthright of the state's citizens.
Some say that selling permits for coveted hunts to the highest bidder suggests the state's most prized big-game specimens are reserved for wealthy out-of-staters. Yet the program raises money that helps ensure robust populations of big game. These funds are particularly helpful in Utah for reseeding quickly after wildfires eradicate forage at a time when deer, elk, pronghorn and other ungulates should be fattening up for winter.
Lemon contends that the funds conservation-tag programs pump into Utah translates into benefits for all hunters. The program raised nearly $4 million in 2016, and the permit at play with the Nebo ram sold for $95,000, according to DWR.
Lemon said his clients "put a lot of money into Utah," more than those complaining about the ram.
"These knuckleheads ought to be ashamed for spit-balling these people. Those guys who buy a $25 deer tag don't do squat" for habitat conservation, he said.
But the way critics see it, Lemon's client got to take a ram that the law reserved for the lucky Utah hunters who drew a sportsman tag this year.
In an internet post Friday, six weeks after the incident, DWR essentially took the blame.
"Because the aforementioned rule affects only two people per year, we have historically opted to not include it in the guidebook. Instead, we send letters to both hunters, explaining the rule. Unfortunately, because of a personnel change this year, we cannot find proof that we sent an explanatory letter to the statewide conservation permit holder," the agency officials wrote.
Waldrip, who could not be reached, is not shy about taking pride in her hunting prowess. Two years ago a reporter with "GQ Magazine" accompanied her on a safari in Botswana, writing about her quest to bag an elephant. On Sept. 25, Waldrip changed her Facebook page banner photo to a shot of the camo-clad hunter posed with the spectacularly proportioned deceased ram on the Utah mountainside, a stunning view spreading below.
Lemon said his guides wanted to be sure Nebo was open to their client so they called DWR ahead of time.
"We had the go-ahead. We are in the right," said Lemon.
According to DWR, the employee Lemon had spoken with "does not work in the region that oversees the Nebo unit and was unaware of the rule that requires the two hunters to alternate hunting years. Consequently, the employee told the outfitter that he believed it was legal."
Lemon's guides took Waldrip to Nebo on Sept. 1, the day the season opened. A DWR biologist called the outfitter informing him that Nebo was not open this year to conservation tag holders. By the time Lemon reached his guides by cellphone, the client had already made the kill.
DWR law enforcement officers investigated the incident and handed their findings to the Juab County prosecutor, who declined to file charges.
Utah residents can apply for 2017 sportsman permits beginning Oct. 26.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly