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SALT LAKE CITY — New data released by Utah's leading wildlife agency signals a statewide uptick of big game and trophy animals killed in 2021, but wildlife officials say that doesn't necessarily indicate a spike in big game poaching.
In all, 1,153 animals were illegally killed last year, according to information related by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wednesday. The number represents the total number of animals either poached or killed by hunters or anglers in an unknowingly illegal manner.
"This doesn't mean all these animals weren't flat out poached. There could have been mistakes in there — shot more than one, shot the wrong species and stuff like that," said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Capt. Chad Bettridge.
The figure is a slight increase from 2020, where 1,079 animals were reported to have been illegally killed; there were also 1,065 illegally killed in 2019.
The biggest differential, however, was the cost of the animals killed, a sign that more of Utah's big game animals, such as deer, elk and bighorn sheep, were illegally killed than in the previous year.
Per state law, each animal illegally killed includes a restitution fee, which hunters and anglers found guilty of a crime may be forced to pay. It ranges from $5 for protected wildlife not included in Utah's code to $30,000 for trophy bighorn sheep illegally killed. A case also ranges from a misdemeanor to a felony based on the species and size of the animal killed.
In general, big game animals are also valued more than waterfowl or fish, and trophy big game are valued higher than non-trophy big game. These fees are how the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources calculates the cost of every animal illegally taken.
The cumulative cost for every animal illegally killed rose from $384,000 in 2020 to $610,000 last year, according to the division. The average cost per animal illegally taken also shot up from $363.38 in 2019 to $355.89 in 2020 to $529.97 last year, an indication that more big game animals were killed in 2021 than in years past.
Of the 1,153 animals illegally killed last year, 180 were deer — including 34 trophy bucks. That's an increase of 29 deer illegally killed in 2020. Another 113 were elk, up from 89 the previous year. Of the 113, 18 were determined to be trophy bucks.
There were also 17 cougars, 11 bears, five moose, one bighorn sheep and 374 fish illegally taken throughout the year among the 1,153 animals.
Bettridge said the division didn't notice an extreme uptick in big game cases as 2021 unfolded. He said many of the cases may have just been hunters who didn't know they had broken a law, which can still lead to a criminal case but isn't viewed as severely as intentional poaching cases.
Conservation officers seek to solve all illegally killed animal cases, but it's also not uncommon for a hunter will self-report a mistake, Bettridge added.
In the more egregious cases, people may end up losing hunting and fishing privileges in Utah and the 48 other states that abide by the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. Forty-eight people had their hunting or fishing privileges suspended last year, compared to 35 in 2020.
Interestingly enough, one of the only decreases from 2020 to 2021 was the number of citations issued to hunters and anglers for committing wildlife crimes. The division reported that they issued 4,394 citations for illegal wildlife practices, a slight decrease from 4,762 in 2020.
Bettridge said he hopes that's a sign that people heading outdoors for hunting and fishing are more aware of the rules, which will ultimately help reduce the number of animals illegally taken by accident.
"We try to make our rules and regulations as accessible as possible," he said. "We try to provide as much opportunity as we can to have the knowledge when we go out and enjoy hunting and fishing and those types of activities. But it is still upon that individual to collect that knowledge. ... That trend is going down and I hope it continues."
"Each animal that is illegally killed in our state is one less animal for legal hunters, wildlife enthusiasts and everyday residents to enjoy," Bettridge added. "Poachers steal our ability to enjoy Utah's wildlife."