Conservation Wildlife Management

Former Utah Wildlife Commissioner Under Investigation for Baiting Mule Deer on Outfitted Ranch

An investigative report by the Division of Wildlife Resources lists Wade Heaton as being under investigation for allegedly baiting big game on a ranch in southern Utah
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Close-ups of two trophy mule deer.
Two close-up shots of trophy mule deer bucks that were posted to Color Country Outfitter's Facebook page in 2023. Photos via Facebook

Few people thought much of it when a member of the Utah Wildlife Board resigned in October, citing a lack of free time to continue serving in the position. Now, new information obtained by a reporter with the Utah Investigative Journalism Project sheds new light on Wade Heaton’s resignation. This includes a 62-page report from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources that names Heaton as a suspect in the state’s investigation into alleged baiting violations on Heaton Ranch in Kane County — the same property where he operates Color Country Outfitters.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, which broke news of the report on Tuesday, Heaton submitted his resignation email within a week of when that report was completed. Outdoor Life was unable to obtain a copy of the report in time for publication, but a spokesperson with the Utah Department of Natural Resources confirmed in an email that Wade Heaton is listed as a suspect in that report. She also said the report had been turned over to the Utah County Attorney’s Office for screening. Neither Heaton nor the Attorney’s Office immediately responded to requests for comment.

Heaton operates an outfit that offers high-dollar mule deer hunts on Heaton Ranch, a working cattle operation located on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The ranch is part of of the Alton Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit, and the DWR confirmed with the Salt Lake Tribune that Heaton is the operator of that unit. (The CWMU program is a unique type of public-private land partnership in Utah that provides landowners with vouchers for big game permits, which they can then sell to hunters; as part of that exchange, the DWR requires landowners to provide hunting opportunities to the public that are “comparable to the private hunts.”)

Utah hunting guide takes photo of buck.
A hunting guide with Color Country Outfitters takes a picture of a stud mule deer buck that was killed on Heaton Ranch.

Photo via Facebook

The 62-page report highlighted by the Tribune lists Heaton as one of seven suspects in the DWR’s investigation into unlawful big game baiting, unlawful taking/possession of protected wildlife, and “a pattern of unlawful activity” on the Alton CWMU. The Tribune also spoke with a resident hunter who was listed in the report as one of 11 witnesses or “involved/others,” and who drew a public tag to hunt with his father on the Alton CWMU this past fall. The hunter said they asked one the outfitter’s employees about the salt licks and water troughs they saw on the ranch, and that the person deferred his questions to Heaton, saying the DWR was already aware of those things.

“As far we were concerned, Mr. Heaton is the division,” the hunter told the news outlet.

Read Next: Wildlife Commissioner Cited for Hunting Turkeys Over Bait Says He Didn’t Know the Crickets Were There

Baiting big game has been illegal in Utah since 2021. The DWR defines baiting as “intentionally placing food or nutrient substances to manipulate the behavior of wildlife for the purpose of taking or attempting to take game.” The agency can issue special permits for landowners that have deer or other wildlife depredating their crops or causing property damage. It also makes an exception for salt licks and other mineral blocks used for “normal agricultural purposes.”

The DWR’s report did not specify what kind of bait the suspects allegedly used, according to the Tribune.

A fifth-generation rancher in Kane County, Heaton has served as a county commissioner there since 2020. In 2019, he was appointed to the Utah Wildlife Board by Gov. Gary Herbert. Similar to wildlife commissions in other states, the board makes general policy decisions related to hunting, fishing, and trapping, and it helps guide the DWR’s wildlife management agenda. During a meeting in November, DWR director Justin Shirley thanked Heaton for his service and noted that the vacancy won’t be filled until the end of Heaton’s six-year term in 2025. Heaton is, however, still running for re-election as a Kane County Commissioner this fall, according to a Facebook group promoting his campaign.

It’s unclear what will happen next with the state’s investigation, but the Tribune reports that no charges have been filed yet. The operators and users of CWMU’s are subject to additional hunting regulations set by the DWR, and the state Wildlife Board has the power to remove landowners from the program if they violate these rules or any other section of Utah’s Wildlife Code.