- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2017

PROVO, Utah (AP) - With winter in full swing, Utah wildlife officers are on high alert for poachers as colder weather brings wildlife out of higher elevations and closer to populated areas.

Deer and elk often move from the mountains to winter range in the valleys and canyons when the snow starts to accumulate, The Daily Herald newspaper in Provo reported (https://bit.ly/2j928YK). Snow-covered terrain can also make animals easier for hunters to spot because the creatures stand out against the stark background.

Sean Spencer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spends much of his time patrolling a large swath of winter range that includes Provo Canyon, Spanish Fork Canyon and Utah Lake. He looks for suspicious activity, like cars pulled over in strange spots. They might be “spotlighting,” or trying to draw in animals with artificial light.

Though most people in the canyons are just trying to watch wildlife or gather antlers, the conditions that make prize animals more accessible and visible can increase temptation to hunt illegally, Spencer said.

The state steps up wildlife patrols from December through February and saturates hotspots with officers on certain days. Part of the goal is to make it clear that they’re watching.

“The more often they see you, the fresher it is in their minds,” Spencer said. Still, it’s impossible to be everywhere, especially in the backcountry.

“It’s kind of a shot in the dark whether we actually run into something,” he said.

The Division of Wildlife Resources has documented 78 illegally killed animals so far this winter. The numbers, which also include animals taken by mistake out of season or bounds, had been growing in recent years and hit a five-year high of 149 kills in the winter of 2014-2015.

The totals dropped a bit last year and look on pace to be down significantly this year, Capt. Mitch Lane told The Associated Press. He didn’t know why that is. However, Utah has had a particularly snowy year, which could prevent people from reaching some wildlife habitat.

The state still relies heavily on tips from hunters and outdoorspeople, and offers cash and free hunting tags as rewards. One recent morning, Spencer got a tip about a female elk shot in South Fork Canyon, outside the boundaries where the hunter was allowed. Spencer confiscated the hunter’s tag and gave the elk meat to the tipster.

Confiscation, though, is fairly rare - many tips lead officers to carcasses of animals that died of natural causes or were killed legally.

That’s at least in part because most people follow the rules when hunting and fishing, Spencer said, but those who don’t can face hefty fines and restitution.

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