Cougar hunting permits will increase under a controversial measure the Utah Wildlife Board unanimously approved on Thursday.

The number of permits will rise from 531 to 581, a move applauded by ranchers and hunters but criticized by animal advocates and some wildlife groups.

“We feel trophy hunting serves no utilitarian function and should not be condoned in the name of financial gain,” said Deann Shepherd, communications director for the Humane Society of Utah.

But the state Department of Wildlife Resources argued that hunting could limit the big cats’ appearances in cities — Salt Lake City police killed a cougar that strayed downtown Aug. 1 — and help control attacks on livestock and buoy deer and elk populations.

“I don’t hear anyone defending my lambs, other than me, while they’re inhumanely killed by a mountain lion or a bear,” said Bret Selman, a Tremonton sheep farmer and board member of the Utah Wool Growers Association. “It’s crippling, the lion losses we have.”

Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy disputed the effectiveness of hunting as protection for livestock.

“Evidently the justification for the cougar hunt the state has is recreation opportunity,” Robinson said.

Opponents of the increase pointed to a recent, large study in Colorado, which showed cougar declines when hunting quotas exceeded 12 percent of the population. Utah’s hunting permits will account for to 14 percent to 30 percent of the state’s cougar population, estimated between 1,900 and 4,000 — and some argued even those figures are too uncertain to justify killing more.

“In light of not having all the answers, I feel like the precautionary principle might be in order here,” said Allison Jones, wildlife biologist for the Wild Utah Project. “Instead of [hunting] 20 to 25 percent, which I fear may be happening this year in Utah, [let’s] push the pause button.”

Wildlife board member Kevin Albrecht, who is a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service and voted Thursday for the permit increase, argued that Utah’s estimates compare well to tallies in other states.

“The studies that have been done in Utah … did give us a tremendous amount of data,” Albrecht said.

It isn’t clear whether Utah’s cougar population will follow the trends observed in Colorado after hunting was introduced, said Darren DeBloois, mammals program coordinator for the DWR.

“If [Colorado cougars] had declining prey base, that would be different than in Utah, where we’ve got increasing deer herds and a growing cougar population,” DeBloois said. “[Utah cougars] could probably sustain a higher harvest.”

He also noted that not every permit will result in a kill; only 400 cougars were hunted last year for the 531 permits issued.

Nonetheless, opponents decried the hunts as needlessly harmful to the animals, especially when dogs are used to tree the cougars.

“We … ask that hounding no longer be permitted as a cougar hunting method because it is cruel to dogs and to cougars, particularly on kittens, and most Utahns view this method as unsporting and not fair chase hunting,” said Sundays Hunt, director of the Humane Society of the United States in Utah.

Hunters accused opponents of sentimentalizing and exaggerating the harm to animals.

“Social issues and political issues should not dictate wildlife management,” said Bill Christensen, Utah’s regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Let’s not get caught up in the emotion of anthropomorphism and trying to think that animals are people or people are animals.”

Utah Wildlife Board member Karl Hirst, of Orem, described the cougar permits as “the most difficult decision we make every year.”

“Nobody wants to overharvest anything,” Hirst said.