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SALT LAKE CITY — Attendees of the Friday night auction at the 10th annual Western Hunting and Conservation Expo didn't just enjoy dinner and a keynote speech by "American Sniper" wife, Taya Kyle — they also witnessed a world record.
The coveted Antelope Island State Park mule deer permit was the last item to sell at Friday night's auction and went for an astounding $410,000, becoming the new world record for the most money paid for a mule deer hunting permit. The same permit held the previous world record after it sold for $390,000 at the 2015 auction.
The first Antelope Island State Park permit was auctioned in 2011 after being authorized and mandated during the 2011 legislative session, according to Antelope Island State Park manager Jeremy Shaw. The legislature approved the auction of one mule deer permit and one bighorn sheep permit each year, as well as a public draw for another mule deer and bighorn sheep permit on the island.
Antelope Island is known for its genetically "pure" herd of about 700 bison, but is also home to about 130 bighorn sheep and about 500 buck mule deer — many of which are world class and the main reason the permit sells for so much.
"Antelope Island has uniquely large genetic antlers so we get large deer and people want the opportunity to get the largest antlered deer," Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan said.
The hunts are managed by Antelope Island State Park officials in conjunction with the DWR. Sheehan said some controversy has surrounded the hunt due to it being held at a state park and the fact that two of the four yearly hunting permits for the island go to those with the most money.
"Antelope Island is controversial because it's a state park, but it's a resource-based park and the resource is wildlife and it costs to manage wildlife," Sheehan said. "People say 'no hunting' and I understand the concern about hunting at a park. But you have wildlife growth that needs to be managed."
Another part of the controversy surrounding the permits is that people have misconceptions of where the money goes, Shaw said. Ninety percent of the proceeds from the Antelope Island State Park mule deer and bighorn sheep permits go back to the island and pays for conservation and habitat projects for the wildlife, and the other 10 percent of the proceeds go to DWR and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife to cover costs associated with hosting the auction, he said.
"What I want to get through to everybody and what is probably the biggest misnomer out there is that that hunt money is used to run the park," Shaw said. "I've read the forums and I've got online and read the fact that people say, 'Oh thank goodness that these people come buy these high dollar tags and save Antelope Island. They are using that money now to run the park.' And that's very, very far from the truth. We aren't allowed to spend that money on any park function. We strictly spend that money on habitat for bighorn sheep and mule deer."
What I want to get through to everybody and what is probably the biggest misnomer out there is that that hunt money is used to run the park. And that's very, very far from the truth. We aren't allowed to spend that money on any park function. We strictly spend that money on habitat for bighorn sheep and mule deer.
–Jeremy Shaw, Antelope Island State Park Manager
Shaw said he believes the Antelope Island permits sell for so much because of the large trophy animals on the island, but also because the money is used for a good cause with the conservation.
"Honestly, I think part of it is they are big mule deer, and the other part is that the money that is raised in the auction comes back to the island to be used for mule deer and bighorn sheep habitat projects," Shaw said.
In 2015, the revenue from the Antelope Island permits was used to pay for a $60,000 renovation of four water springs on the island so they could produce and hold more water for the wildlife, Shaw said. Each year, park officials also plant 40-60 acres of vegetation on the island to help support the animals.
"It is extremely expensive and extremely labor intensive because you have to have somebody grow the starts and then we have to have somebody plant them by hand," Shaw said. "And it's very expensive to grow native seeds. We do lots of habitat manipulation in order to better grow vegetation that will support those animals."
With the revenue generated from this year's record-selling permit, Shaw said there are plans to build another water spring that will hold around 100,000 gallons of water and will cost about $350,000.
Along with the Antelope Island State Park mule deer and bighorn sheep permits, DWR auctions off around 30 other hunting permits each year at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo and 90 percent of those proceeds are used to help with wildlife conservation projects around the state, Sheehan said.
Sheehan said in order to manage growing wildlife herds and to help maintain sustainable numbers on the island, several deer and bighorn sheep are relocated from the park to other areas around the state each year. Fifty bighorn sheep were recently moved from Antelope Island to other areas, and during the past two years, 200 mule deer were also relocated, Sheehan said.
"This pays to help move (the wildlife) too and helps conservation in other parts of the state," Sheehan said. "It is extremely expensive to move wildlife safely and humanely. (These auctioned permits) allow us to move them around the state and helps make Utah the best of all big game species in all the Western U.S. … We have the greatest conservation fundraising machine in the West. This gives over $3 million to do conservation that's not available to other states."
Sheehan said another benefit to moving some of the mule deer and bighorn sheep from the island and transplanting them to other areas around Utah is that the good genetics pool is spread around and other hunters have the chance to harvest a giant buck deer.
"People say 'all the good tags go to the rich guys,' " he said. "We move them in winter and the does are pregnant and you move does of world class deer to make them available to the public."
And while the high-selling auctioned permits typically draw the most attention, Sheehan said they actually make up a very small percentage of the total permits available to hunters in the state. In 2015, 152,826 big game permits were sold in Utah, 211 of which were auctioned, he said.
British Columbia hunter, Troy Lorenz, made the winning bid Friday night to set the new world record for the highest paid mule deer permit. Lorenz had also won the bid for the Antelope Island mule deer permit in 2015 and harvested a 231 inch buck deer.
"It's a good organization and the money goes for a good cause," Lorenz said. "And it's a fun hunt."
The mule deer and bighorn sheep hunts on the island will be held in November. The draw for the Antelope Island public tags will be held in May.