By Jim Cole
The earliest records of Utah wildlife are preserved in the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Fremont Indian culture (A.D. 500 to 1300). The most prominent species noted was the bighorn sheep, seen in artwork in both the deserts and mountains of the state. Other species depicted include deer, snakes, buffalo, elk, pronghorn, lizards, cougars, and ducks.

The first historic record was provided by the Dominguez and Escalante expedition in 1776, in whose records a wide variety of species were noted, ranging from buffalo near present-day Jensen in the Uinta Basin, to trout in the Strawberry River and Utah Lake, to rabbits and hares near the Sevier River. These explorers too found bighorn sheep abundant, this time in the vicinity of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah.

For a short period (1825 to 1840) the fur trade brought numerous trapping expeditions to northern Utah. Beaver was the primary target of their efforts, although river otter were also trapped incidentally. Almost without fail, these expeditions noted almost without fail the abundance of bighorn sheep and buffalo. Other species prominently mentioned by these explorers included the more "visible" species like pronghorn, coyote, bears, deer, and "immense numbers" of ducks at the Great Salt Lake. By the end of this period buffalo had been reduced to remnant populations.

The first scientific inquiry into Utah's wildlife resource occurred when S. F. Baird of the Smithsonian Institute collected and preserved specimens as part of the Stansbury Expedition of 1849-1850. This work classified and identified many new species, particularly reptiles. Jules Remy, a French naturalist who published two volumes about his journey to Salt Lake City in 1855, noted, among other things, the presence of the "Virginian deer" (white-tailed deer, which is no longer present in the state).

When the pioneers arrived in Utah, wildlife represented both benefits and problems. Fish became a significant part of the pioneer diet, particularly when crop failures occurred. At other times, hunting parties were formed to rid the early settlers of "pest" species. One such hunting company reported the killing of "2 bears, 2 wolverines, 2 wild cats (bobcat), 783 wolves (probably both coyotes and wolves), 400 foxes, 31 mink, 9 eagles, 530 magpies, hawks, owls, and 1626 ravens."

Exploitation was the over-riding principle of federal resource policy until 1891 when the Forest Reserve Act was enacted. Thus, for the half-century following pioneer entry into the Salt Lake Valley, Utah wildlife and its habitat was subject to the settlers need to subdue the land for their own sustenance.

Perhaps man's greatest influence on current wildlife habitat, and thus, the current nature and distribution of Utah's wildlife resource, was livestock grazing during this era. By 1885 some 200,000 cattle and one million sheep were grazing the state. The impact of such numbers was evident by the 1890's when severe competition between the cattle and sheep industries occurred. Although overgrazing by livestock was evident by the turn of the century, livestock numbers continued to increase - 400,000 cattle and 3.8 million sheep.

With the establishment of the forest reserves came the hope of regulated grazing on a portion of Utah's public lands. However, it would be another thirty years before significant change was even initiated on the national forests. On the public domain (presently administered by the Bureau of Land Management) there was not yet a legal entity charged with management responsibility for these lands.

Although the first hunting seasons for big game and game birds were established in 1876 (big game season was from July through December), wildlife continued to be subject to direct exploitation. With the buffalo gone and bighorn sheep considered scarce, those elk, mule deer, and pronghorn which were not moved out of their native habitat by enormous livestock numbers were hunted to the brink of extinction. Both elk and pronghorn were given complete protection by the Legislature in 1898, at which time the State's elk herd was limited to a few animals on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains and pronghorn were estimated at less than 700 animals. With big game in decline, other species were also exploited. A typical late-nineteenth century account reported four Great Salt Lake shooters "filled the wagon bed" with ducks.

Fisheries were also exploited. The territorial legislature passed a law that attempted to "prevent the needless destruction of fish" as early as 1853. Yet the commercial trout fishery established at Utah Lake was in decline by the mid-1860s and was essentially eliminated by the 1890s.

As this kind of indulgent fish and wildlife use became more common a group of citizens organized the Sportsmen Club in Logan in 1894 to combat "wanton destruction" of fish and wildlife. When Utah became a state in 1896 the Department of Fish and Game was incorporated into its constitution; thus, Utah's citizens gave official recognition to management of fish and wildlife resources for the first time.

Near the turn of the century, Utah citizens began to recognize the need to rectify some of the resource problems created by the settlement of the last half-century. This recognition, coupled with a "custodial" approach to natural resources, formed the management framework for the first half of the twentieth century. Custodial management was characterized by maintaining existing land uses while reacting to major impediments to such use. Thus, such activities as fire suppression and predator control were initiated to help maintain existing land use patterns.

In this same spirit, wildlife management activities included the opening of the State's first fish hatchery in Salt Lake City in 1899, which began significant efforts to restock depleted fisheries. And, with the realization protection alone would not restore elk populations, 155 elk were reintroduced to six areas from the Yellowstone Park area between 1912 and 1915. This effort was so successful that the Board of Elk Control was established in 1927 to regulate the now increasing elk populations and their resultant conflict with private property interests.

Custodial management of range livestock continued to degrade range resources for both livestock and wildlife. Cattle numbers peaked by the early 1920s at one-half million although domestic sheep numbers had declined to about 2.5 million. The poor range and habitat conditions which resulted from this level of grazing were soon realized to be a major impediment to sustaining existing land use patterns. As a result, a long and arduous effort on Utah's national forests to reduce grazing began in 1920 and ended in about 1970 with a livestock reduction of 50 to 60 percent.

In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act attempted, among other things, "to stop injury to the public (domain) grazing lands by preventing overgrazing." A federal Division of Grazing was thus created; however, little was accomplished relative to the control of overgrazing. The Bureau of Land Management was formed by the merger of the General Land Office and the (then) Grazing Service in 1946, which initiated the slow process of range management reform begun by the Forest Service some fifty years earlier.

In 1933 the name of the Board of Elk Control was changed to the Board of Big Game Control and its powers extended to include all big game species. This was not without reason in that the once small mule deer herd had begun to grow. The problem range conditions generated during the previous forty years had now begun to prove beneficial to mule deer. Heavy livestock grazing had depleted grassland types in favor of forb and browse types, both key elements of mule deer habitat. From 1925 to 1949 the harvest had increased from 1,400 animals to more than 73,000 animals, yet mule deer were still considered overpopulated.

By the 1950s the habitat recovery from earlier resource exploitation was beginning to have a greater influence on the fish and wildlife resources of Utah. In addition, human demands for both consumptive and non-consumptive fish and wildlife use were still far less than the supply. Conservative hunting and angling regulations imposed by the Utah Fish and Game Department coupled with strong support for such regulations by sportsmen had long since eliminated the impact of over-harvest. These factors, along with reduced competition from livestock grazing and the resultant gradual improvement of habitat, led to population increases in many wildlife species by the 1960s.

The species which responded particularly well to these changing conditions was the mule deer, which necessitated an increased management emphasis on the species by the Utah Fish and Game Department. The agency instituted either-sex deer hunting in 1951 in an attempt to control the population, but it was only in the late-1960s that mule deer populations came more into balance with their winter ranges.

The mule deer management emphasis is somewhat typical of wildlife management during this era--that of featured species management. Those species which commanded public attention either because of public interest or conflict were extended management attention. Habitat of these species was also given attention by the federal land management agencies, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Range rehabilitation projects to benefit mule deer, and to a lesser degree, elk, were initiated in the 1950s and continue to some degree today.

During this period the peregrine falcon was essentially extirpated from the state due to reproduction problems caused by the use of the pesticide DDT throughout its range in both North and South America.

The 1970s brought about a proliferation of laws, regulations, public involvement, and legal process, that was generated by a sharply increased interest and activism by the public. With the creation of the Utah Department of Natural Resources in 1967, the Fish and Game Department became the Fish and Game Division, and four years later, the Division of Wildlife. This latter action declared for the first time all wildlife not legally held in private ownership to be the property of the State. In 1976 some authority of the Division was usurped with the passage of the Agricultural and Wildlife Damage Control Act, which placed control of various predator and "pest" species under the jurisdiction of the Utah Department of Agriculture. However, jurisdiction over one of these, the bobcat, was returned to the Division in 1979. In 1986 the legislature strengthened the Division's authority to manage wildlife by declaring all vertebrates plus brine shrimp and crayfish as protected species except those previously designated under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.

The Division of Wildlife reorganized to include a Nongame Section in the early 1970s and a Resource Analysis Section in 1978. The Nongame section became responsible for protection, propagation, management, and conservation of Utah's 499 nongame species. The Resource Analysis Section was established to focus on wildlife habitat protection, land use planning, and environmental issues.

Nearly 64 percent of Utah is federal land, with the large majority managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM): thus, federal law which relates to natural resources is extremely relevant to the State's fish and wildlife. The first authorization for the Forest Service to manage specifically for wildlife habitat came in the form of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. The Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964 game BLM similar authority, albeit only temporary. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 finally granted the BLM formal authority to identify specific areas "where special management attention is required" and designated wildlife habitat as one of those areas.

Other federal legislation of significance includes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted by Congress in 1970 to ensure human activities would not significantly impinge on the natural environment. This act required a documented analysis of impacts on natural systems, but more important, NEPA became the anchor for public involvement in federal resource decision-making. Finally, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave federal protection to species which are judged in danger of extinction over a significant portion of their range or which is likely to become so endangered.

The 1990s thus far have been marked by more intensive public scrutiny of agency management activities than ever before. For example, controversy has been the order of the day as in the case of elk management objectives, an issue raised by ranchers from throughout the state; in bear-hunting methods and seasons, which were challenged by animal rights advocates; and in predator control in designated wilderness areas, an issue raised by environmental groups.

Utah's current fish and wildlife resource is extremely diverse. Some 647 vertebrate species inhabit the state at some point in their life cycle. Of these, 381 are considered permanent residents, which includes 126 mammals, 95 birds, 82 amphibians and reptiles, and 78 fishes. These species represent a significant component of the State's tourism industry. In 1985 nearly $400 million was expended in association with fishing, hunting, and wildlife appreciation activities. All fish and wildlife species form the basis for a recently created network of ninety-two wildlife-viewing areas throughout the state. Viewing areas include short nature trails, wilderness hikes, river float trips, and auto drive-by sites from the high elevations of the Uinta Mountains to the Mojave Desert type southwest of St. George. Wildlife taken for sport and meat include ten big game species, twenty-six species of waterfowl, seventeen upland game birds and mammals, plus twenty-five species of fish. In addition, some eighteen species are trapped as furbearing species.

Species which are listed by the federal government as endangered include one mammal, the black footed ferret; three birds, including the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and whopping crane; six fishes, including the bonytail chub, Colorado squawfish, humpback chub, June sucker, Virgin River chub, and woundfin minnow; and one reptile, the desert tortoise. In addition, the Utah prairie dog and the Lahonton cutthroat trout are listed as threatened. These species, which fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are classified endangered or threatened due to significantly decreased population levels caused by alteration of habitat, a diminished food supply, and/or a narrow range of distribution.

Some species noted by early trappers and explorers are presently absent from the state. These include the grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine, and white-tailed deer (originally limited in distribution). Many other species have undergone drastic population fluctuations, most notably the buffalo, rocky mountain bighorn sheep, river otter, and peregrine falcon. The buffalo, has since been reestablished through transplant programs and work is currently ongoing to reestablish the others. Although there is some disagreement as to the historic presence of the mountain goat in Utah, the species has been reestablished in the Wasatch, Uinta, and Tushar Mountains. As mentioned previously, pronghorn and elk were nearly extirpated but were protected and subsequently reintroduced and reestablished throughout much of their former habitat.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.