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Deputy Roger Olsen says Box Elder County's 5,724 square miles have become a monument to irresponsible gun ownership: blasted road signs, shredded fence posts, pockmarked buildings and dead or wounded livestock and pets.

"The destruction of property is something I can't get over," Olsen said. "The maliciousness is unbelievable. They shoot corner fence posts right in two, and they're 9-by-9 railroad ties."Much of the damage is done by people who are night hunting, or "spotlighting," using car-mounted or hand-held lights to locate prey.

The problem is protecting landowners with a small number of law officers while keeping the sprawling county open to law-abiding sportsmen. County officials hope they've found the answer in an ordinance that punishes unlicensed and irresponsible night hunters.

"All we're trying to do through this ordinance is control some of the vandalism and things," said Sheriff Leon Jensen. "We've got a lot of areas to patrol."

The ordinance, approved last year, has now been amended by the County Commission to include tougher penalties and restrictions on spotlighting.

But the changes weren't made without some good-natured nostalgia from the three county commissioners, who remembered a little sheepishly their own youthful misadventures with night hunting.

"I don't think I ever shot stop signs, but I shot lots of other things," said Commissioner Jay Hardy.

"We shot a lot of ammunition out there," said a smiling Commission Chairman Lee Allen.

But despite the memories, the county is serious about controlling the vandalism done by shooters.

"They go out there, and they think nobody's around and nobody owns it," Allen said.

Under the ordinance, a person who wants to spotlight hunt in Box Elder County must buy a $5 license from the sheriff. It is good for six months. Licenses will not be issued for five years to people convicted of a felony or any crime involving use of a firearm or other weapon.

Hunters cannot spotlight on private land without written permission from the landowner, cannot use their headlights or any other car-mounted or car-powered lights to spotlight, and cannot spotlight while in a motor vehicle.

Jensen said only a half-dozen people have applied.

In the past several weeks, deputies and wildlife officials have arrested several truckloads of night hunters who had no permits. Olsen said he often hears the sound of bullets pinging off metal signs or posts on his patrols.

"They are out there," he said, but he added he was not sure why people end up shooting inanimate objects and livestock.

Part of it, he said, may be that Box Elder County hasn't had many animals to hunt these past few years.

"In the 300 miles I traveled out there last week, I saw two rabbits, and one of them was roadkill," Jensen said.