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Hunters scarce in those hills

There will be longer lines at the grocery store and gas pumps tonight and heavier traffic in the canyons for the opening salvo of the deer hunt.

But busy though it may be, it won't be anything like it was five years ago.About 80,000 deer hunters will climb out of warm beds at first light Saturday, put on cold socks and leave their tracks in the morning frost as they set out after big game. Just five years ago, this ritual involved nearly 191,000 deer hunters.

Where will the other hunters be?

Not at the grocery stores or the gas pumps, nor at sporting goods stores, tire shops or new-truck dealers buying deer hunting buggies. In most cases, they'll be at home in bed. Or, maybe fishing somewhere. Or playing golf.

And, for some businesses, it's not a comforting thought. Hunting deer is big business in Utah, and, as the numbers show, five years ago it was a lot bigger.

A report from the governor's office of Planning and Budget shows that the average deer hunter in 1991 (the most recent statistics available) spent an additional $45 for each day of hunting. Opening weekend alone, that adds up to $7.2 million in additional money spent by those hunting.

However, those same numbers translate to $10 million that was not spent because of more than 100,000 fewer hunters afield.

The true loss could be even higher. The state's numbers aside, the consensus is among business, game officials and sportsmen is that lost revenues for the opening two days of the hunt is actually closer to $20 million because of lower hunter numbers.

"It hurt us," said Gene Jones, manager of the gun department for Smith and Edwards. "We do less than half the business we did five years ago. It used to be that from mid-August through the hunts we'd be packed. Right now it's slow. It'll pick up around noon and later this afternoon we'll get some hunting traffic."

Several gun dealers said their business was off by as much as one-third.

Todd Weeks, an assistant manager of a Firestone tire store, said sale of wide tires for 4-by-4s is way down. "We simply don't stock as many of the wide tires anymore. We don't get as many deer hunters. It used to get pretty busy around this time with hunters getting the big mud tires. Now it's mostly light-duty and passenger-car tires," he said.

Some of the dollar difference is being made up by other hunts, such as the duck hunt. The elk hunt is also attracting more hunters.

"We made up for some of the loss with the duck hunt. It was a good hunt this year and we sold more shotguns," said Dave Boul-ton of Gallenson's.

Several store managers said that in order to offset the loss in some areas, they increased product sales in others, mainly in the area of accessories.

Deer-hunter counts are down, however, and not expected to increase significantly.

"There were simply too many hunters. We needed to reduce the pressure," said Mike Welch, big game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Recourses.

Officials were, in fact, looking for a way to reduce hunter numbers.

"Five years ago we were managing for hunting opportunity. We can't manage a herd that way. This was obvious from the buck/doe ratios we had back then. In some areas it was three bucks per 100 does. Right now we're trying to manage for 15 bucks per 100 does, and in some units (areas) we're there," said Welch.

Nature, it turned out, couldn't wait. She hit Utah with a bad winter in 1992-93 that killed thousands of deer. In some areas 80 percent of the fawns died.

This made it necessary for game officials to set a cap of 97,000 deer hunters (this includes archery, general rifle and muzzleloader hunts) for each of the past four years. The last time the deer-hunter count was this low was more than 50 years ago.

A report by the National Fish and Wildlife Service show the change. It reported Utah had 143,000 big game hunters for 1996, which includes deer, elk, moose, sheep, etc. In 1991, the same survey put Utah's big game hunter count at more than 177,000.

The 1991 report of the Fish and Wildlife Service figures Utahns spent $517 million pursuing wildlife associated recreation, including hunting, fishing and wildlife watching.

Using figures for the 1996 report, the total spent in the three areas was only $512 million.

Welch said he doesn't see a time when there won't be a cap on deer hunters.

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Additional Information

Big game combination license sales and deer hunters afield

Resident Total Total

Year Percent License Sales Hunters Afield

1955 89 139,673 129,303

1960 86 161,648 150,401

1965 87 180,876 171,466

1970 90 192,234 178,005

1975 93 196,431 177,056

1980 95 200,643 186,381

1985 91 195,841 177,484

1990 88 207,368 189,139

1995 94 104,333 97,462

1996 95 107,784 107,892