Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

Utah's CWMUs
By Ron Hudson - Utah DWR CWMU Coordinator
Published in Utah DWR Magazine -- Wildlife Review:

Cooperative Wildlife Management Units benefit landowners, hunters and wildlife.

When Gil Conover spends time on his family's private ranch in Nine Mile Canyon, he almost always encounters a herd of elk. In the fall he can be assured of hearing the eerie bugling of bull elk, which echoes from the steep canyon walls as each bull attempts to announce his superiority to the other bulls.

These experiences make Conover smile, but that wasn't always the case.

Private lands pose a unique challenge in wildlife management. Rick Danvir, wildlife manager at Deseret Land and Livestock, refers to the relationship as the "Perverse Triangle." The three sides of the triangle are made up of private landowners, the people of the state of Utah and the Division of Wildlife Resources.

Each has separate goals and interests. The landowners own much of the habitat that the state's wildlife depend on, and control access to that land, but they don't own the wildlife. The people of the state of Utah own the wildlife, but they don't own the private land. The UDWR does not own the land or the wildlife, but the agency is responsible for managing the state's wildlife for the public.

Because no side of the triangle has all of the elements necessary to help wildlife thrive, cooperation among all three sides is the only was that the state's wildlife can be managed effectively.

This challenge led to the creation of Utah's Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit (CWMU) program.

Benefits for landowners, wildlife
The CWMU program allows a landowner or group of landowners to form a special hunting unit for deer, elk, pronghorn, moose or turkey. Similar to the state's limited entry hunting units, CWMUs are open only to those who possess a hunting permit the that CWMU unit.

A percentage of the permits for each CWMU unit are available to the public in the state's big game drawings. Hunters who draw these permits are given access to private lands that they probably wouldn't be able to obtain access to otherwise. In return, the landowners receive a percentage of the tags that they can use themselves. The landowners also can choose to sell their tags. Allowing landowners to sell tags provides them with a financial incentive to foster healthy big game herds.

This incentive has worked wonders. Before the CWMU program came into existence, UDWR biologists commonly heard private landowners complain, "Get all of your big game off my property!" That attitude was understandable since landowners received no financial benefit from wildlife, and big game animals competed with their livestock for forage.

The situation has changed dramatically since the CWMU program began and property owners started reaping the rewards of fostering habitat for big game animals. Now, instead of wanting all of the deer and elk removed, landowners in the CWMU program want the herds to grow. In fact, UDWR biologists sometimes have to restrain landowners from growing populations that are too large for the available range.

Sportsmen benefit too
Sportsmen also benefit from the arrangement.

Larger big game populations mean more animals for sportsmen who hunt on public lands that are adjacent to the private CWMUs. For example, bull elk that were tagged by UDWR biologists on one northern Utah CWMU were later harvested on public land in a nearby area. Some of these harvest locations were up to 40 miles away from the CWMU.

Another benefit is the access hunters gain to private properties. In 2006, more than 4,650 permits were available for CWMU lands. More than one-third of those permits (35 percent) were available to public sportsmen through the state's big game drawings.

Many people think back to the 1960s and 1970s when access to hunt private lands could be gained either for free or a small charge. They incorrectly assume that the CWMU program has taken away the opportunity for them to hunt on these private lands for free.

The truth is that times have changed, and free hunting on private lands is now about as common as a confirmed Bigfoot sighting. In reality, without the program, there would be almost no chance for a public sportsman to bag a deer, elk or moose on these private areas without paying the landowner a substantial fee.

Habitat is key
Each year, more of the areas that big game animals depend on to make it through the winter are being turned into housing developments and cabin lots. When these lands are developed, animal populations often can't shift to other locations because other animals already live there. The unfortunate result is a decline in big game populations.

The CWMU program provides landowners with a financial incentive to keep their property as open space. While most landowners do not get wealthy from selling their portion of the CWMU tags, they can make enough money to supplement their livestock operations. That money encourages them to keep their land, rather than selling it to a developer.

CWMU landowners also are recognizing that good habitat offers many benefits. In addition to healthy wildlife populations, their livestock operations can improve when their range is managed wisely.

In Utah, a group known as Quality Resource Management has formed with the goal of improving habitat on private lands. The group is forming chapters across the state. These chapters are open to all private landowners, but they were started because CWMU landowners recognize the value of pooling their resources to improve conditions for big game animals. In the past 10 years, private landowners have improved thousands of acres of wildlife habitat on their lands in Utah.

A conservation community
In addition to improving their lands for wildlife, CWMU operators strive to be good citizens of the conservation community in other ways too.

Not long ago, a UDWR biologist received a call from a woman who had been stricken with severe lung disease for several years. The disease kept her tethered to oxygen and mostly home-bound as she awaited a lung transplant.

In spite of her challenges, she was determined to show her young family that life should be experienced fully. She decided to go big game hunting, which was something she had never done before. She had completed a hunter safety course, but her disease forced her to remain within 20 feet of a vehicle. She was unsure where she could go hunting and have some expectation of success.

When one of the CWMU operators learned of her situation, he immediately donated a CWMU tag to the eager new hunter. She and her family experienced a wonderful day afield that culminated with her bagging her first pronghorn with a single, well-placed shot.

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