Amid the countless outdoor shows held each year, the annual Western Hunting and Conservation Expo(WHCE) sponsored by the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW) in Salt Lake City, Utah, this weekend—Feb. 16-19—is a cut above, and here’s why. The focus is on family, the loud-and-clear message is that hunting is conservation and, by show’s end today, this powerhouse in raising funds for conservation will have raised in excess of $4 million for fish and wildlife conservation and habitat restoration.
Of course, who wouldn’t be energized to walk the Salt Palace Convention Center’s 400,000 square-foot exhibit hall and check out with booths filled with engaging taxidermy, America’s outdoor and hunting manufacturers and outfitters set to book your next hunting or fishing trip? And then there are afternoon and evening live and silent auctions and banquets and an array of hunting seminars.
But it gets better. Special to the WHCE, attendees put in their names for more than 200 special Utah hunting permits offered only to show attendees at a mere $5 a pop—something hunters can take advantage until the show closes at 4 p.m. today. And while most of us will never have a spare $40,000-plus to book the sheep hunt of our dreams, you’re covered there, too, as the Full Curl Society sold thousands of raffle tickets for 10 fully-paid and guided sheep hunts covering all four of the North American wild sheep species. I didn’t have a winning ticket at yesterday’s drawing, but it is rewarding to know all that money goes straight back into wild sheep conservation.
Reaching Hunting's Next Generation Salt Lake area middle school students get to participate in a program called the Youth Wildlife Conservation Experience. Students receive passports and walk the show floor learning about the history of wildlife conservation and the critical role that hunters play in our nation’s fish and wildlife resources. In addition, a special area of the show floor is dedicated to teaching about firearm safety, wildlife identification and more. These activities are available throughout the show, further highlighting that the WHCE is a family-focused event.
Cole and Jackson Hartley
And these young hunters get it—so much so that I stumbled on a new website and social media network for youth: YOUNGHUNTR.com. As I chatted with enthusiastic young Utah entrepreneurs Cole and Jackson Hartley, ages 17 and 14, who are in the process of launching their website, I smiled knowing that with young people like this in our ranks, hunting’s future is in good hands.
“A few months ago, Dad and I were trying to think of ways to get more youth into hunting,” said Cole, adding, “A lot of my friends don’t even know the difference between a deer and an elk so Dad’s friend helped us build a website.” As I chatted with their parents, Dad Jeff, who works with Sage Government Solutions on behalf of sage grouse, explained he also works with the state of Utah on a variety of other hunting and conservation issues and could not be more proud of his sons.
Honoring America's Military I personally appreciate the frequent recognition given to our nation’s military throughout this show, starting with the ribbon cutting ceremony on opening day—a ribbon that, by the way, was cut by a limited 75th Anniversary edition of the119 Buck Knife.
“We are honored to have Wishes for Warriors and Hunts for the Brave with us today,” said MDF President/CEO, Miles Moretti. “Through the sacrifices of these brave Americans, we all can enjoy this country’s vast open spaces and our hunting traditions.” For those unaware, the Mule Deer Foundation, by the way, is the only conservation group in North America dedicated to restoring, improving and protecting mule deer, black-tailed deer and their habitat, with a focus on science and program efficiency.
Celebrating American Sportsmen In acknowledging the 50,000 hunters and fishermen on the WHCE show floor, WHCEco-sponsor, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, agrees the show represents the best of what is possible through good conservation led by avid sportsmen and women. “Those who participate in our evening auctions will also have the opportunity to support our [the Expo’s] conservation mission and we are proud to raise so much money for the future of our wildlife resources,” said SFW President Troy Justensen.
Joan Nestor (left) of the MDF chapter in Rifle, Co. wins MDF's 2016 Outstanding Volunteer Award.
But where does this money go, you ask? In Utah alone, for example, more than 140,000 acres of big game habitat have been restored. “In the last four years, we’ve grown the mule deer population by 100,000 and our elk populations is at an all-time high” explained Greg Sheehan, director of Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
Of course, the hard work benefitting conservation could not be pulled off without partnerships with volunteers—America’s army of passionate hunting conservationists. At a special MDF breakfast just for volunteers, I was excited to see my friend Joan Nestor of the MDF chapter in Rifle, Co., win the MDF 2016 Outstanding Volunteer Award.