Utah wants more people to hunt cougars, but some say losing big cats will pose big problems

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A 4-year-old female mountain lion slowly shakes off the effects of a sedative after researchers from Utah State University and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources replaced her radio collar after being captured in the Oquirrh Mountains.

Utah is poised to add 34 more cougar hunting permits across the state, alarming wildlife advocates who fear trophy seekers will wipe out the older and bolder cats, destabilizing the mountain lion population and boosting the threat to cattle.

“Getting rid of the big cats, from a livestock-protection perspective, is very foolish,” said Kim Crumbo, senior carnivore advocate for Wildlands Network. “They live a long time because they learn to get along.”

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources wants to increase the number of hunting permits to 678 (out of about 2,700 cougars in the state) for the 2019-20 season. The Utah Wildlife Board will take public comment on the proposal before voting Aug. 22.

Robert Wielgus, former director of Washington State University’s large carnivore conservation lab, cautioned that DWR’s plan could amount to overhunting. He noted that cougar populations grow at about 14% annually. Utah’s proposal would put a quarter of the mountain lions at risk.

His research also found that heightened hunting can lead to more human issues with the big cats. When hunters gun down the large males in charge of a territory, adolescent males can become more emboldened and creep into human settlements. A 2016 study out of British Columbia also found that human-cougar conflicts, such as attacks on livestock and people, were higher after increased trophy hunting.

Darren DeBloois, DWR’s mammals coordinator, agreed that hunters often target large alpha males as prizes but said the department monitors the health of that subpopulation. If less than 15% of the cougar kills in a hunting unit are over 5 years old, it indicates that older lions have been overhunted and the DWR would push to reduce the permits.

Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club, worries that fewer cougars could lead to genetic bottlenecking. A smaller population could bring a less diverse gene pool, making the species more vulnerable to changes in their environment or diseases.

Tyler Farr, president of the Utah Houndsmen Association, desires a healthy cougar population. Unlike other trophy hunters, he said, Houndsmen go after cougars for the sport and often do not kill the lions after they find them. The association, he said, trusts that DWR is doing its job correctly.

Farr chases cougars once or twice a week during the hunting season, a pursuit he’s enjoyed for the past 12 years. Farr said he is happy with the lion supply up north, where he hunts and is consistently able to find animals. Houndsmen in other regions have seen some populations decrease, but whether cougar fluctuations are a result of hunting or weather patterns, Farr can’t say.

DeBloois noted DWR also wants to boost the permits to help stave off declines among mule deer and bighorn sheep. Crumbo of the Wildlands Network sees some justification for that but argues for a more scientific approach.

Don’t hold your breath on that, said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. After three decades working in Utah, he said, he has no faith that the state cares about science or the public interest.

Robinson served on the 21-member board that established the 2015 cougar management plan. The panel included two with advanced science degrees, eight representatives with hunting backgrounds and no one besides Robinson from a conservancy background.

He also criticized the lack of gender, racial and political diversity on the state’s wildlife board. He said critics of cougar hunting have little chance of ever making up the majority of the governor-appointed board.

“Each year," Robinson said, “the wildlife board consists of middle to elderly-aged white males who are part of the hunting community or have agricultural interest.”

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said in a statement that Herbert is confident in his appointments to the board and seeks to bring varied perspectives to the table. Before board members change wildlife rules, his office said, they listen to recommendations from biologists and input from the public.

This isn’t the first year that cougar hunts have caused concern. DWR has raised permit numbers over the past few years, each time to the dismay of animal advocates.

DeBloois said that no matter what DWR recommends, people will be unhappy. Some Utahns would like to see all the cougars gone; others would like to ban hunting altogether.

“It’s controversial," he said, “and there are a lot of different opinions about it.”