On the hunt: What DWR officers want hunters, anglers to know

State officials want hunters and fishers to take as close a look at wildlife laws as they do hunting habitat. Photo courtesy of UDWR

The deer that was shot on public land ran onto private property and then died.

The hunter who shot and killed what he or she thought was a spike elk discovered later that it was actually a cow elk.

The fisher who just finished filleting the six rainbow trout he or she caught later realized that the catch limit at the reservoir was actually four.

Before people find themselves in any of these scenarios, here’s what Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officers would like them to know.

Research before going afield

Just like someone would never fly a plane without getting some training and doing a lot of preparation, they shouldn’t go fishing or hunting without making sure they know the laws. The most common mistake that DWR conservation officers see is people killing wildlife without a valid permit, often due to negligence and not carefully checking the hunting permit.

Residents have to take hunter education or participate in Utah’s Trial Hunting Program to obtain a hunting license in Utah. Then, they have to make sure to read and become familiar with the laws in the guidebook for the species they are hunting. They also need to make sure they carefully check the permit so they know which season, species and unit they are allowed to hunt.

“The best way to stay out of trouble is to review those regulations and also check your permit carefully before you go out in the field,” DWR law enforcement investigator Doug Messerly said. “It’s shocking how many people go hunting without even opening their envelope to see what permit they drew. They often don’t check their permit until after they have harvested an animal, and then finally discover that they hunted in the wrong unit or season, or sometimes for the wrong species.”

The same goes for fishing. Those planning a fishing trip need to make sure they have a current fishing license and take time to read the fishing guidebook so that they know the requirements for the body of water they’re visiting. They should understand which species must be released, what the limit is for each species and what types of bait are allowed.

“There are hunting unit boundaries and fish limits for a reason,” Messerly said. “These things help us manage various wildlife species according to specific plans and to maintain healthy populations for each area or waterbody. If we don’t enforce the boundary or limits, our management plans don’t work as well.”

There are a lot of resources available on the DWR website, including maps to the hunting boundaries and popular fishing spots, and guidebooks that detail Utah’s hunting and fishing laws.

“If people have additional questions or concerns about the law, they can also call one of our DWR offices and talk to a law enforcement officer,” Messerly said.

How to avoid other common mistakes

Another common mistake that DWR conservation officers encounter is when a hunter mistakenly shoots the wrong animal. One great way to prevent that is to be absolutely sure of your target before taking the shot.

“Never take that shot if you aren’t absolutely sure and confident of your target and what is beyond your target,” Messerly said. “That will help prevent you from shooting a doe deer when you have a permit for a buck deer.”

Hunters also should keep in mind that an animal doesn’t always drop right after it is hit.

“We have seen instances where someone took a shot and thought they missed, so they fired at another animal in the group. By the time they are done shooting, there will be five elk that are dead,” Messerly said. “It’s so important to be educated about these animals and what you are doing before you go out into the field.”

Investigator Doug Messerly

Another common scenario is when a hunter gets into a dispute with a private landowner about a deer shot on public property that crosses the hunting boundary line and dies on the landowner’s private property.

“If you choose to hunt so close to the boundary that the animal may jump the fence or cross that boundary line, then you need to prepare in advance for that possibility,” Messerly said. “You can’t just cross onto that private property and retrieve the deer. You need to immediately contact DWR law enforcement who will help you legally retrieve that deer. Otherwise, you are trespassing, which is illegal and can lead to conflicts with the landowner.”

Those who use an ATV or other off-highway vehicle during the hunt should remember that the same DUI laws that apply to driving a regular vehicle also apply to an ATV.

“Driving an ATV while under the influence of either alcohol or drugs has the same stiff penalties as a regular motor vehicle,” Chris Haller, the off-highway vehicle program coordinator for the Division of Parks and Recreation, said. “These penalties can include jail time, fines, the loss of a driver’s license and being arrested. Be responsible, as this is an action that’s very preventable.”

When and how hunting/fishing licenses are suspended

There are a variety of ways that people break the law. Some make a mistake. Others are opportunistic and will take advantage of an opportunity while hunting or fishing, even when they know it’s against the law. And some head out into the field fully intending to break the law ahead of time. In most of these instances, the person will be criminally prosecuted and will pay a fine. But for a hunting or fishing license to also be suspended, the person has to intentionally, knowingly or recklessly violate the law.

“If you make a mistake while hunting or fishing, we highly recommend that you contact DWR law enforcement,” Messerly said. “When someone self-reports, that reduces the likelihood that your license will be suspended. We understand that people get scared or embarrassed, but it shows a lot of goodwill and says a lot about you if you will take responsibility for your actions. Learn from your mistakes and comply with the law.”

In 2016, 77 anglers and hunters had their licenses suspended. In 2017, that number rose to 86, and then slightly decreased in 2018 to 84. This year, 71 individuals have had their licenses suspended, as of Sept. 20.

The lengths of various suspensions are established by the Utah Legislature and are based on the designated class of crime. If the crime is determined to be a class C misdemeanor, the suspension is one year. For a class B, it’s three years. For a class A misdemeanor, it’s five years, and for a felony, it’s a seven-year suspension. However, those periods can be doubled for two reasons: if the license was already suspended at the time of the crime or if the crime involves a trophy animal.

“The entire purpose of wildlife law enforcement is to encourage people to comply with the laws,” Messerly said. “Those laws are made to benefit wildlife and the public. I honestly wish that everyone would just comply with the law so that we didn’t have to do suspensions. That is our goal. But unfortunately, people do break the law, and we believe that a license suspension is the best deterrent we have for people who intentionally break those wildlife laws.”

If an investigation reveals that a crime meets the criteria for license suspension, the person is notified and is offered a hearing. These hearings are held at the Utah Department of Natural Resources building in Salt Lake City on the first Tuesday of each month and are open to the public. A hearing officer receives the details of the case and determines whether the hunting or fishing license will be suspended. If a person disagrees with the suspension, they may appeal it to the Utah Wildlife Board within 20 days of the hearing officer’s order being issued.

“Along with determining if someone knowingly, intentionally or recklessly violated the law, we also take into account the circumstances and their past history before we recommend a license suspension,” Messerly said. “If the law just changed in the past 30 days, we take that into account.”

Utah is a member state of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. License suspensions in Utah are recognized in all the other states in the U.S., except for Hawaii.

Be an ethical and responsible hunter and angler

Along with following the laws and maintaining safety while hunting and fishing, it’s also important to practice responsible recreation: don’t ride off trail when using ATVs and be sure to pack out all trash. Leave no trace.

“There is an influx of damage due to off-trail riding during the hunting seasons,” Haller said. “When people ride off trail, they damage important wildlife habitat. This habitat is important for the success of game survival and off-trail riding could negatively impact popular hunting areas. This can be avoided simply by staying on designated ATV trails, which will sustain future hunting opportunities.”

Make sure to always review road and trail maps before traveling to an area and be familiar with the areas you plan to ride in. Always obtain written permission from a landowner before entering their property to hunt.