SALT LAKE CITY — Despite having millions of acres of outdoor playgrounds, fewer than half of Utahns ages 16 and older get out to fish, hunt or view wildlife.
Those findings, part of a new survey released this week by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, underscore what Utah wildlife officials see as an alarming trend they want to reverse.
"Over time we have been seeing decreases in the number of people who fish or hunt or are participating in wildlife viewing," said Dean Mitchell, conservation outreach chief for the state Division of Wildlife Resources. "That is a concern."
The State Overview Report is based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, followed by three rounds of detailed interviews that wrapped up in May. A more comprehensive state-by-state report is scheduled to be released next year.
Overall, on a national basis, 38 percent of the U.S. population participated in some sort of recreational activity related to fish and wildlife in 2011.
Utah scored similar to the national number, at 39 percent, but was beaten by several neighboring states, such as Colorado at 47 percent, Idaho at 54 percent and Wyoming at 59 percent.
Utah also fell behind North Dakota, 41 percent, and the top scorers, Alaska at 64 percent and Vermont's at 62 percent, but surpassed North Carolina, Florida, Maryland and last-place finisher Hawaii at 22 percent.
Each year, fewer and fewer people get out to take advantage of Utah's hunting opportunities, prime recreational fishing or take in a glimpse of wildlife, Mitchell said.
This year's 39 percent participation rate pales in comparison with what Mitchell said the state was seeing in 1991 — 65 percent.
"There's a lot of competition for people's time. We know that," he said. "There is an abundance of things to do out there."
Over the years, several outreach efforts throughout the country have tapped public opinion about the roadblocks to recreating in the wild. Those factors can include inability to pay, lack of access especially in urban areas or even general lack of information about what recreation opportunities exist close to home.
To that end, the division has launched a new program to help Utah residents — especially the young — connect with the outdoors.
Called the Wildlife Recreation Program, the effort combines and unites the division's existing hands-on recruitment and public outreach efforts by putting them under one umbrella.
Division director Jim Karpowitz said the division's community fisheries, youth fishing clubs, Dedicated Hunter, hunter education, shooting ranges, shooting sports, watchable wildlife, Great Salt Lake Nature Center, special events and volunteer programs are all part of the new program.
The hands-on activities, Mitchell added, are aimed at both educating and entertaining in a lure to get people to unplug from their laptops or put down the game controller and get outdoors.
"The way that society is going any more, we spend less time outside, especially kids," he said.
Aside from what Mitchell said are obvious quality of life issues in enjoying the outdoors, the division's wildlife recreation programs generate revenue from licenses and fees that are critical to conserving habitat, controlling for disease in animal populations and improving ecosystems, such as range land for deer and elk.
Fewer participants means fewer dollars for the stewardship of Utah's wildlife, he said.
"It's a critical part of what we do," Mitchell said.