The state of Utah will spend an additional $750,000 hunting down coyotes and other predators in an effort to restore the state’s mule deer herds and protect ranchers from losses if a bill authored by Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, passes in the waning days of the 2012 legislature.
Okerlund’s SB 245, Mule Deer Protection Act, was publicly introduced on Feb. 28 and received the unanimous approval of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee following a public hearing the next day. The bill passed the Senate 23-5 yesterday and is now headed to the House for consideration.
Mule deer predators, especially the coyote, present a threat to deer herds and ranch animals in Tooele County, according to local ranchers.
“This bill addresses a severe problem with restoring our mule deer herds,” said Okerlund. “Despite our efforts at wildlife habitat restoration, the mule deer population continues to decline and it will soon get so low that the deer will not be able to replenish their population.”
Jim Karpowitz, the director of the state Division of Wildlife Resources, testified in the Legislature that targeting predators would have a positive outcome on deer herd populations.
Concerned about the drop in the statewide deer population, the Utah Wildlife Board reduced the number of hunting permits for buck deer by 7,000 in 2011 and has reorganized hunting regulations for 2012.
The bill allocates $250,000 to the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Wildlife Services for helicopter hunting of predators and $500,000 to the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife Resources for targeted hunting and bounties for predators, primarily coyotes, according to Okerlund.
The state currently spends around $500,000 annually on predator control, Okerlund said.
Coyotes not only prey on young fawns, but they also attack lambs and calves, creating problems for ranchers, Okerlund said.
“They are a huge problem,” said Tooele County Commissioner Jerry Hurst. “We have a lot of them in Tooele County and they are problem for ranchers as well our deer population.”
Tooele County currently participates in the state’s predator control program that matches a bounty on coyotes.
“A $20 bounty is offered for coyotes,” said Hurst. “The state pays $10 and the county puts up the other $10.”
The bill allows the DWR to adopt rules to govern the predator control program, which may include increasing bounties or hiring contract hunters.
The state will match coyote bounty funds up to $4,500 per year, and in the last three years the county has matched that amount, Hurst said.
“Coyotes are a problem that ranchers in Tooele County constantly have to think about,” said Leland Hogan, president of the Utah Farm Bureau and owner of a ranch in Rush Valley.
However, not everybody is convinced that predator hunting is the answer to declining mule deer population.
“There in no science available that shows that predator control programs will increase deer population,” said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, a Salt Lake City-based organization that promotes the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat. “It may not be an effective use of taxpayer money. In fact, there is some research that shows that hunting coyotes may increase their population.”
Studies cited by the Western Wildlife Conservancy’s Project Coyote claim that targeted coyote killings increase the female-to-male ratio of packs by infilling from neighboring coyote populations, and also lead to an increase in litter sizes.
Okerlund believes that the mule deer population has dropped to such low levels that stepping up predator control in necessary. He referred to the mule deer as ranking second place to the beehive as an iconic symbol of nature in Utah.
“This is an emergency situation,” said Okerlund. “We could lose our mule deer herds all together if we don’t take action.”