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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- In the last couple of decades, the number of hunters taking to the field for the annual general deer hunt has dropped by more than two-thirds despite the state's population increasing more than 40 percent.
At hunting's peak in Utah, more than 250,000 residents headed into the state's fields and forests.
Only about 70,000 hunters are expected to head for mountains on this year's opener next Saturday.
During hunting's peak, many school districts made the Friday preceding the opening weekend a holiday, knowing there otherwise would be many empty seats, cutting into the schools' revenue from the state. Businesses commonly closed early that day as the mass exodus from town began. Retailers advertised weekend specials for "deer-hunt widows."
Fifteen years ago, all high school football games were scheduled on Thursday nights before the opener. Now about half of the state's high schools schedule games the Friday before the opener. The split is between rural and urban schools with those in big cities opting to play on Fridays.
While some Utah companies still give employees the Friday before or the Monday after the opening weekend of the deer rifle season off, the state's hunting holiday is a thing of the past.
The change has been dramatic. In the 1960s, hunters made up 20.4 percent of Utah's population. The percentage of residents who sought big game in 2001 dipped to 8.6 percent.
Kevin Conway, director of the state Division of Wildlife Resources, points to the limiting of deer permits -- instituted in 1994 to protect dwindling herds -- as a key to the decline.
When Conway began working as a conservation officer 29 years ago, there were an unlimited number of hunting permits. Then, a decade ago, deer permits were capped at 97,000.
"The animals just were not there in the same volume as they were in the 1970s and 1980s," Conway says.
He also sees a change in the goals of the hunters. Many no longer are willing to take a spike buck just to put meat in the freezer.
"Overall, a lot of hunters would rather kill a mature buck now," Conway said. "Twenty years ago they were satisfied with a yearling animal. Hunters now seem more focused on the experience of the hunt rather than the harvesting of an animal."
Hunters also have been gravitating to limited-entry trophy hunts, despite odds as high as 390 to 1 against them being lucky enough to draw a permit.
Many Utah hunters also play the odds in neighboring states, hoping to score a big kill and wall-sized antlers.
"People hunting now are willing to sacrifice time and money for a better hunt. They also have a little better understanding of the biology and the politics of hunting and are more conservation minded than before," said John Bair, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
"Twenty years ago there were plenty of open spaces and places for wildlife. As those places disappeared so did a lot of hunters," he said.
Hunter numbers are down nationally as well. According to the recently released 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, just 6 percent of the nation's population over 16 hunts.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)