SALT LAKE CITY — Karl Malone's departure to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer did more than leave a gaping hole in the Utah Jazz lineup.
When it comes to hunting, few voices carry as much power in Utah's political arena as Malone's soft baritone.
"Sometimes people are ashamed to speak their minds for what they believe in, but Karl isn't. He is proud to be a hunter and he says so," said state Rep. Michael Styler.
"There is no question his celebrity status makes people listen to him."
Malone says he is proud of his conservation efforts in Utah — a legacy as important to him as the 36,374 points he scored for the Jazz.
"I did things I felt would help Utah wildlife. A lot of people have done the same thing," Malone said last summer.
"I don't think I did anything unbelievable. I've just been myself. I just happen to be an NBA player who loves the outdoors and I do things to make it better."
Before Malone called the Division of Wildlife Resources one day in the mid-1990s to say he wanted to get involved, hunters in Utah had a muted voice.
We had completed 17 bighorn sheep transplants and spent $3 million and got very little attention," said Don Peay, president of the wildlife-protection group Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife and a hunting buddy of Malone's.
"Karl Malone came to one bighorn release and every television station and newspaper did something."
"He brings a celebrity factor which leads to media exposure and validation of what the sportsmen have been
doing silently for decades," Peay said.
Utah politicians quickly learned if they stood behind Malone's causes he would return the favor by standing behind them at parties and rallies.
Malone brings more than his celebrity to the hunting cause.
Peay said the power forward has contributed "in excess of a quarter of a million" dollars to hunting and conservation efforts. Last year he provided a $100,000 donation, which helped lead to the release of 32 bighorn sheep on Mount Timpanogos.
Malone said seeing those sheep released was the highlight of his conservation efforts in Utah.
"My little boy was there and Don's [Peay] little boy was there [at the release] and it was awesome," Malone said.
"It isn't about bagging the biggest game or catching the biggest fish. It is about leaving something for somebody else. That is easier said than done. A lot of people just don't want to ante up."
Kevin Conway, director of the Division of Wildlife Resources, said while Malone's financial contributions were important the message he sends to other hunters is priceless.
"As a celebrity he has not been bashful about the fact he is a hunter and a consumptive user of wildlife," Conway said.
"He has demonstrated that hunters and their activities greatly benefit wildlife.
"It is a credit to his integrity to step up and talk about how important hunting and the outdoor experience are to him."
Nick Engel felt Malone's influence on Utah hunting all the way in Michigan. Engel's name was drawn from entrants for the Karl Malone Youth Conservation Initiative. He traveled to Utah and took a 5x5 bull elk on a guided hunt paid for by Malone.
"It was a lifetime experience and a great privilege to go to Utah," said Engel. "I didn't get to meet him, but I thought it was really cool that he would do this for kids.
"I knew he was a good basketball player and all that, but I didn't know he was into hunting and it surprised me. I thought he was like Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan and just into basketball."
Those with hunting interests are not bemoaning the fact that Malone left Utah in pursuit of a championship ring. In fact, they look forward to Malone's return and wonder if he might bring some high-profile company to the wilds of Utah.
"[Los Angeles center] Shaquille O'Neal is quite a hunter. I wouldn't be surprised if Karl brings him here on a hunt. He is out there recruiting another poster boy for sportsman's issues," Styler said.
"I hope Karl will continue his support of hunting issues in Utah and if anything, being in Los Angeles just gives him a larger platform to convey the importance of his interests."
Malone said he would gladly bring anyone interested in hunting in Utah, but that he would not be preaching his values to his Laker teammates.
"I'm a conservationist and I believe in the outdoors, but I don't push that on anybody," Malone said.
Whether Malone returns to Utah with Shaq in tow remains to be seen, but Malone says he will be back. Malone paid $26,000 at an auction in April 2003 for the Pahvant unit elk conservation tag. It was the second time Malone purchased that specific tag.
"Karl has left a legacy that will last for generations to come," Peay said.
"When Utahns are out hiking and they see an elk, a moose, a bighorn or wild turkeys, chances are Karl Malone had a part of putting those animals there or helping them survive by protecting their habitat."