Nevada Wildlife Conservation Efforts

Find Unlikely Allies in Big Game Hunters

On a cold black December morning, two hunters slid into their warm clothing to prepare for the day’s hunt. They’d been stalking the buck on and off for about a day and a half, searching for any sign of him and the herd of 20 or so does that accompanied him. The size of his antlers was a thing of legend, still encased in their winter velvet. 

The two hunters, Matt Parent and Shawn Dixon, were finally able to spot him as night fell, but held back; they’d be able to complete their hunt when the morning came. 

Just before dawn, the Game Warden joined the hunters and fired the single shot that brought the buck down. 

Only, he hadn’t fired with a bullet, but a tranquilizer dart. 

The buck was the much beloved buck known as the King of Carson in the capital city, and the two hunters had been following him for days because he had tangled his massive antlers in a clothesline that hung with metal eyebolts that rang like small bells each time they touched. 

When the buck laid himself down on the grass and fell asleep, Parent asked the Game Warden for the “honor” of cutting him loose. 

“I asked the warden if I could cut the rope,” said Parent during a 2020 interview following the rescue mission. “I said, ‘I found him, I’d love the honor of setting him free.’”

Parent, Dixon, and the Game Warden were the first three people to ever lay hands on the prized buck. “It was really special,” said Parent. 

While some may find it interesting, or even confusing, that a couple of avid deer hunters would work so hard to save a deer from a clothesline, to many hunters, it makes perfect sense. 

Matt Parent with the Sedated King of Carson, January 2020 – image: courtesy of Matt Parent

Animals both wild and domestic have long attracted advocates to rally in their favor. Animal enthusiasts across the country can often be found protesting outside fast-food joints or meatpacking facilities, rallying for protections on various endangered species, or volunteering at local shelters for homeless pets. 

However, one group of advocates are often overlooked by the public, or even rejected as potential conservationists: hunters. 

Pronghorn Antelope – image: courtesy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife

In Nevada, hunters are some of the most active animal enthusiasts, and according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), play an integral role in keeping wildlife populations healthy and stable. 

“Hunting can be used as a sustainable practice for protecting against overpopulation of game species,” said Ashley Sanchez of NDOW. “NDOW is currently very conservative in our big game tag recommendations, but has used increased tag quotas as a tool to reduce big game populations in the event of catastrophic habitat loss or to maintain numbers of big game animals agreed upon in various planning efforts.”

NDOW tracks wildlife populations through a variety of means, including both aerial and ground surveys; collaring big game animals to determine survival rates, seasonal habitats and migration corridors; and by collecting harvest data provided by hunters in upland game, migratory birds, and furbearer species. 

“Big game herd health can be viewed in two ways – having healthy sex and age ratios as well as appropriate numbers for available habitat and the health of the herd with respect to disease issues that big game populations can face,” said Sanchez. “Recreational hunting helps maintain appropriate numbers of big game species in Nevada and the Wildlife Health staff collects numerous samples from both harvested animals as well as collecting samples from captured animals for testing for disease.”

Rocky Mountain Elk – image: Ramash Thadani, cc 2.0

At present, roughly 30,000 big game tags are issued annually in Nevada for mule deer, antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and black bears. While this number may seem large, it doesn’t mean that 30,000 animals are being harvested each year; the number is a quota, but the amount of animals harvested each year is much lower than the quota, according to NDOW.  A tag is the authority for an individual to legally harvest an animal in a specific unit group in a specific hunting season which generally lasts a couple of weeks.

For example, according to NDOW statistics, Big Game Hunts that took place during 2020 culminated in:

  • 201 Antelope 
  • 3 Black Bear
  • 21 California Bighorn Sheep
  • 77 Desert Bighorn Sheep
  • 263 Elk
  • 3 Mountain Goat
  • 454 Mule Deer
  • 4 Rocky Bighorn Sheep 

“Hunting seasons, rules and regulations, and tag quotas are set by the Nevada Wildlife Commission,” said Sanchez. “The board receives tag quota recommendations from NDOW, County Advisory Boards, and members of the public before ultimately deciding upon how many tags will be allocated for a given year.”

The Nevada Wildlife Commission is a 9-member, governor-appointed board which is responsible for establishing policies, setting regulations, reviewing budgets, and receiving input on wildlife and boating matters from Nevada’s 17 counties. 

Of the 9 individuals on the commission, five are Sportsmen. The other members fall into agriculture, while only one individual, David Mcninch of Reno, is a Conservationist. 

Coyote – image: courtesy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife

However, according to Donald Molde of the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, a 501c3 non-profit wildlife advocacy organization, the Nevada Wildlife Commission can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to tag allocation. 

“I believe the wildlife commission is an impediment to wildlife management in this state and should be abolished,” said Molde. “Or at least, significantly reformed so as to reflect the demographics of the state and restore democracy to wildlife management.”

The reason behind this, according to Molde, is because the Wildlife Commission incorrectly believes that taking out predators such as mountain lions, ravens and coyotes will restore prey populations, such as mule deer. 

Mountain Lion with Her Cubs – image: courtesy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife

Molde and the Nevada Wildlife Alliance submitted two lawsuits against the Wildlife Commission in these respects. The first was to stop predator trapping procedures that Molde said injured many domestic pets and non-predators alike. 

“The second lawsuit took issue with the deliberate killing of mountain lions, coyotes and ravens to ‘create’ more mule deer and sage grouse,” said Molde. “Even though over the past 20 years, over 10,000 coyotes have been killed in this pursuit, over 200 mountain lions have been killed, and over 50,000 ravens have been poisoned, deer numbers have declined by 50,000 animals since [the year] 2000, and sage grouse numbers are no better.”

There is substantial scientific backing that shows eliminating predators from a natural environment does have a negative effect on prey populations and the environment as a whole. 

Image: Yellowstone Wolf Project

In a famous, internationally recognized ongoing case study following the effects on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, the data supports Molde’s claims that predator hunting does not increase prey populations. Since the beginning of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, prey populations have flourished along with the natural environment’s ecosystem all the way down to river erosion, showing that predators do play an important role in keeping the environment healthy and balanced. 

“The obsession of some sportsmen and the Wildlife Commission to kill mountain lions and coyotes because they hate the animals and think they eat too many deer is an embarrassment to watch and a disservice to the citizens of Nevada and to wildlife,” said Molde. “Everybody knows lions know how to cull the sick and diseased among wildlife species. Everybody knows predators can control their own populations.”

However, when it comes to wildlife living inside the realms of human civilization, things can get trickier. 

Mule Deer – image: courtesy of the California Division of Fish and Wildlife

Individual hunters like Parent have often taken matters of conservation into their own hands, as he had the day he spotted the King of Carson in need of help.

When the call came into the NDOW game wardens regarding a large buck that had become tangled in a clothesline in Carson City, Parent was adamant that the deer needed to be saved. 

“When I got through to the dispatcher I told them, ‘Hey, this isn’t your average buck, he’s the King of Carson, a lot of people follow him, he’s an icon of our city and we need to take care of this guy,’” said Parent.

A few days later, Parent, along with friend and fellow hunter Shawn Dixon, was able to locate the buck and assist NDOW in sedating and freeing him from his tangled ropes. While some might think it odd a deer hunter would call game wardens asking for a deer to be saved, for many hunters, it falls in line with their philosophy. 

“Most hunters are ethical sportsmen and we genuinely, deeply care about our wildlife,” said Parent. “We are true conservations. As hunters, we know the avenues of who to call to make sure these animals survive.”

“We want to conserve them,” added Dixon. “We enjoy hunting, we need them to be here. My grandfather, my father and I hunt, our kids hunt and soon-to-be grandkids will hunt. It’s important.”

Mule Deer – image: courtesy of the California Division of Fish and Wildlife

Both ethical hunters and NDOW take poaching extremely seriously, and heavy fines and jail times are levied against those who are found to be guilty of poaching. 

“It is important to realize that hunters are not poachers,” said Sanchez. “These are two very different groups of people. A hunter is honest, understands the role that hunting plays in conservation, and would never even consider shooting an animal illegally. A poacher has often never possessed a hunting license in his/her life.”

Nevada utilizes game wardens to enforce these laws, and NDOW also relies on the public for tips on possible wildlife crime through their Operation Game Thief Program. 

One individual, 22-year-old Garrett Higbee of Alamo, Nev. was recently sentenced to 90 days in the White Pine County Jail and faces $14,000 in penalties after he was convicted of the illegal killing of a doe antelope as well as the illegal killing of a bull elk in two separate instances. 

Oftentimes, tips from other hunters through Operation Game Thief are what helps in bringing poachers to justice. 

“Operation Game Thief tips account for close to 90 percent of all poaching cases each year,” said Sanchez. 

In 2021, NDOW game wardens received over 2,300 tips through its hotline (1-800-992-3030) and another 116 tips through its new reporting app “NDOW Tip.” Those tips resulted in 79 poaching cases. 

One thing that NDOW, ethical hunters, and conservationists agree on wholeheartedly is the need to protect Nevada’s wildlife. 

“Hunters genuinely care,” said Parent. “We deeply care about preserving our wildlife, making sure they stay alive and sustain their resources.”

Kelsey Penrose grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and now reports on the goings-on within the Northern Nevada region. She found her way into journalism by harassing her first editor for six straight months until he finally broke down and gave her a job. Now you can find her work in the Sierra Nevada Ally, Carson Now, Reno News and Review, This is Reno, the Sacramento Bee and more. Kelsey is an alumna of Arizona State University, holding a Bachelors in English Literature and a Bachelors in Anthropology with a focus in Archaeology, and she is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with Sierra Nevada University. She is passionate about issues facing rural Nevada, the future of agriculture in the sierras, social justice, folklore, and bluegrass music. She lives and gardens in Washoe Valley. Support Kelsey’s work for the Ally here.

Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant publication that offers unique, differentiated reporting on the environment, conservation, and public policy, and gives voice to writers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.


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