SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Worden, the owner of Utah Predator Callers, has been hunting since the age of 10. While in Box Elder County last October, he killed two coyotes in just 14 minutes.
It could have been a $100 experience if he had chosen to cash in with Utah's coyote bounty program.
Under the 2012 Mule Deer Protection Act, Utah taxpayers provide the program with a $500,000 annual budget, offering hunters a $50 bounty to kill coyotes. However, two years later, mule deer populations have not increased. State wildlife officials say the program will work, but opponents of the program question its legitimacy.
Humane Society of Utah spokesman Carl Arky said it is impossible to blame low deer populations on coyotes alone. He believes coyotes are just a convenient target.
"I don’t see where this is going to work. It doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense two years ago and it still doesn’t make sense. They’ve killed 7,000 coyotes, and the deer population hasn’t gone up," Arky said.
Worden echoed the viewpoint of the Humane Society and questions the effectiveness of the bounty.
“It is a waste of time and money for the purpose it is being done. A coyote is an animal of opportunity that is going to take an easy meal," Worden said. "Coyotes do account for some (fawns) that have died, but I don’t think that’s the main issue for the deer herds.”
Experts from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources disagree and say the program will work if given more time.
John Shivik, the division's mammal program coordinator, said the program should be in place at least three years before any conclusions can be made.
“The more years the better,” Shivik said. “There’s so much variability in nature. I wouldn’t look at it too seriously until the end of the third year.”
Troy Davis, a wildlife technician for the Division of Natural Resources, said scientists are not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” When it comes to science, trying to pinpoint why a species is declining is not suitable for short-term guesswork.
“It’s complex,” Davis said. “People want quick answers, but those aren’t necessarily the best answers.”
The controversy over the program is also centered on its half-million-dollar budget. According to data provided by the DWR, since July 2013, the program has put $355,950 into hunters' pockets and sent 7,119 coyotes to their graves.
The bounty, which enticed more than 600 new hunters to register for the program, could be just enough to tip trappers' moral compasses, said Arky, who wonders if hunters are killing coyotes outside of Utah but collecting money from the state.
"We’re spending taxpayer money, and how do I know that it wasn’t easier for (hunters) to go somewhere in Nevada or Idaho? There’s no way to know," Arky said. "There are probably more cost-effective ways of doing this."
The DWR has one record of fraud on file. On Jan. 28, 2013, three adolescents attempted to turn in 11 coyotes for $550. However, the volunteer biologist who processed the scalps noticed that some of the ears had been notched and teeth had been taken from the lower jaw.
According to the report, scissors had made the cuts and the coyotes had already been turned in for a profit. No charges were filed against the youths, even though they tried to double dip into the state's pocket.
Davis said the DWR has taken some steps to minimize fraud by requiring registration and location information at check-in.
“Honestly, the guys that do the data collection in the region know many of these hunters personally," he said. "A lot of these interactions are governed in that way. Now that doesn’t cover the entire spectrum, but that’s one of the things that’s beneficial in the system.”
The DWR provides a chart on its website showing that a majority of hunters turn in one or two coyotes at a time. However, records also show that on several occasions hunters have walked away with more than $1,000 after turning in coyotes.