SALT LAKE CITY — (KUTV) The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has come under fire for a decision made last December. State authorities approved a wildlife conservation group, Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife, as a permit distributor for a hunting expo that takes place in Salt Lake City every year.
In doing so, it appears the state dismissed millions of dollars that would have been used for wildlife conservation efforts in the state of Utah.
The Western Hunting and Conservation Expo was created in 2007, with the purpose of raising funds to enhance Utah's wildlife populations. The DWR and the Utah Wildlife Board partners with a wildlife conservation organization (or two) to run the event. The organization is allocated up to 200 premium, trophy hunting tags. Hunters can pay five dollars per tag and be entered into a public drawing for a chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunity.
This process alone often raises more than a $1 million each year.
The problem is, not everyone believes that money is being used to solely fund Utah conservation efforts.
The Utah office of state purchasing put out a request for proposals, or RFP, last year, to determine which organization would run the expo series for the next five years.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, submitted a proposal, offering to run the expo. It also offered to give 100 percent of the proceeds from the hunting tags, back to Utah Conservation Efforts.
Instead, a State Purchasing evaluation committee chose Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, which has been involved in running the expo for several years, but only designated 30% of the tag proceeds to conservation efforts.
The decision created a firestorm amongst Utah outdoorsmen, who sounded-off on hunting forums, accusing the DWR and Utah Wildlife Board of corruption, catering to special interests and accepting bribes from Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
"They seem to be, putting it mildly, in bed together," said Wes Bennett, whose been a licensed Utah hunter for several decades. "I don't believe it's in the interest of the general public, or the general hunter rather, I believe it's in the interest of an elite group of trophy hunters."
"The expo as it is right now is doing the average joe no good. In fact, it's doing us harm," said Cody Colvin, who boycotts the expo and has been an outspoken opponent. "We're pumping money into this special interest group that's fighting against our rights."
2News sat down with DWR Assistant Director, Mike Canning for a recorded interview.
He was asked: "In what way is 30 percent better than 100 percent? If DWR is for Utah conservation efforts, how are they (SFW) the better party for this?"
Canning's response: "In any proposal you have to look at more than just money."
Canning went on to point out that Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was heavily favored for its 100 percent commitment to conservation, but came up short in their business plan and their data security protocol. (Read the justification statement here: WildLife.Utah.gov)
"In this case we had one very detailed business plan and a second proposal that had much less detail," he said. "With the risks to the state and our customers, I think it's really hard to assume the RMEF proposal would have given more money to the state of Utah. We just didn't have the detail to be able to say that for sure."
Canning was the sole representative from the DWR on a five person evaluation committee tasked with choosing the best option.
"There was no debate at the end as to which one was better, it was obvious to all of us," he said.
The President of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, David Allen, is certain the evaluation process was rigged.
"It was just biased in how it was written and so be it," he said in a phone interview from his office is Missoula, Montana.
Allen also took a perceived shot at Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife: "You are not supposed to be sustaining an organization and surviving on the revenue from those tags, you're not supposed to be living off those tags, the wildlife is supposed to live off those tags."
Utah hunters want proof that shows SFW is using the expo tag proceeds for wildlife conservation in Utah.
"Every organization is subject to audit for the funds they receive, but SFW is not, so our question is what are they doing with those funds?" said Bennett.
2News also reached out to Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife in an effort to learn where the money is going.
CEO Jon Larsen declined an interview request for this story, but left a voicemail message saying, "if there's a story to be written it ought to be on the success of the expo."
At this point, a number of distrustful Utah hunters have decided to boycott the expo series altogether and hope others will join them.
"The wildlife board and SFW are working together to change the rules and nobody has any power to do anything about it," said Colvin.
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