New wildlife group burgeoning

By JEFF GEARINO, AP Southwest Wyoming bureau

GREEN RIVER -- A new state organization that advocates for Wyoming hunters and anglers is quickly growing in membership, organizers and members say.

Officials with the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife in Wyoming (SFW) say the group has signed up over 1,200 members in the few months since its inception in January.

Wyoming SFW officials attribute their huge gains in membership to a general dissatisfaction among Wyoming hunters and anglers with the state's other conservation organizations. They said many sportsmen in the state believe the SFW will provide hunters and anglers with a new, more powerful lobbying voice.

The group will get a recruiting boost from basketball legend Karl Malone at the end of the month. SFW officials said Malone plans to visit several Wyoming cities on May 31 as part of a recruitment and publicity drive.

Malone will also be the guest speaker at the Lander chapter's banquet that night.

"Things are continuing to move forward at an accelerated rate in Wyoming," the group's Wyoming organizer Bob Wharff said in a phone interview from Evanston Thursday.

"It's incredible how fast we've grown," he said. "The battle isn't over by far, but one can't help but feel as though everyday our voice and our political stroke is growing stronger."

Wyoming SFW banquets aimed at raising funds and membership have been scheduled at various venues over the next few weeks, Wharff said.

The first banquet was held May 10 in Thayne and over 200 people attended.

He said Wyoming Sen. Delaine Roberts and Rep. Randall Luthi both addressed the group during the event. Wharff said basketball great Karl Malone has planned stops in Cody, Jackson and Riverton/Lander on May 31.

The nonprofit group has its roots in Utah and was founded by conservationist and sportsman Don Peay.

The Wyoming SFW is modeled on the highly successful Utah SFW that formed in 1994, Wharff said. The Utah SFW has grown to include more than 15,000 members in less than a decade and wields considerable influence on wildlife management in that state, he noted.

Wharff said the goals of the group is to protect the state's hunting and fishing traditions and heritage. It also seeks to advocate on hunters and anglers behalf on such issues as wolf delisting, public access and protecting elk feedgrounds and big game habitat.

There are currently six Wyoming SFW chapters-- including chapters in Lander, Casper, Cody and Evanston -- and organizers hope to have 10 to 12 chapters by the end of the year. He said the biggest chapter is in Cody with nearly 500 members.

Wharff -- an Evanston resident who served on the Utah group's executive committee and as vice-president of their mule deer operations-- said the grassroots organizational effort turned its focus on Wyoming because many sportsmen in the state feel their voice is not being heard on important wildlife issues.

"I think Wyoming sportsmen have been frustrated ... some almost bitter and enraged at some of the bigger, more established conservation groups in the state that have been hunter-orientated in the past," he said.

"We need to be smarter, I think, as sportsmen as far as how we invest in our hunting future ... and I think (Wyoming sportsmen) see us as being that group," Wharff said.

"Once people who have lived here a long time ... saw what the group could do and once they started believing in it, they're the ones that have been promoting this thing and carrying it on their backs."

Wyoming SFW member and Riverton-area publisher Mike Rinehart said "people in Wyoming are just simply tired of the environmental/green movement... and they're tired of (other conservation organizations) not stepping up to the plate" on tough wildlife issues.

"What Peay has done is let the greenies know that once sportsmen get organized and it's done right, then we will control our wildlife and our destiny and become a powerful voice," he said.

Rinehart noted that 90 percent of the monies raised by Wyoming SFW "stays in Wyoming and will be spent by Wyomingites." He said a state board has been established to oversee funding expenditures.

Common goals

Wyoming Wildlife Federation Executive Director Larry Baesler said his organization is not in competition with the new sportsmen's group, nor has the WWF lost any influence of late. He said he hopes both groups will work for the betterment of all of Wyoming's wildlife.

"(The Federation) is still where we have been in the past... we are still a voice for the sportsmen in this state and our membership is holding steady," he said.

"We're still dealing with the issues that we've dealt with (in the past), which is access and making sure that landowners and sportsmen in this state have an opportunity to hunt on the lands that provide the best hunting and fishing," he said. "We feel that we have a huge voice in the Legislature and we actively worked on more than 45 wildlife/conservation bills this past year."

Baesler said both organizations share some common goals.

"We both think habitat is the answer to a lot of wildlife problems and if we can work with them on that issue, we'd be more than happy to," he said.

"We're going to still maintain where we're at and hopefully we'll work for the common good."

Some Utah environmental groups have criticized the Utah SFW group for caring only about big game animals. Utah environmentalists refer to SFW as "Sportsmen for Certain Wildlife."

Liz Howell, director of the recently reestablished Wyoming Wilderness Association, said she heard Peay speak at an SFW organizational meeting in Rock Springs in March.

She views the new group as "anti-conservation."

"Their only focus is on protecting hunters' right to shoot animals and they don't care about anything else... in fact, if there is anything else killing those (big game) animals like wolves and predators, they want to kill them, too," Howell said in a phone interview from the WWA's new Sheridan office.

"They hire lobbyists to lobby ... only for hunter's rights," she said.

"Peay mentioned three or four times (in his Rock Springs speech) that taking away our guns is the next plot, which is not true. If they're getting members because they're fear-mongering, then I feel very sorry for those members."

Malone is one of Peay's biggest fans and often hosts dinners where Utah state legislators discuss hunting issues with SFW officials, according to various media reports.

Rinehart said Malone's planned visit has generated a lot of "excitement" in Fremont County.

"It's a big deal for Wyoming, but it's going to be huge for Fremont County," he said. "The biggest place to entertain him in the county has about a 500-person seating capacity and we're going to be right at that."

Malone's agent, Dwight Manley of the United Sports Agency, was not in his Newport Beach, Calif., office Friday and could not be reached for comment.