The Utah Wildlife Board boosted cougar hunting quotas Thursday for the fourth year in a row, voting to hike permits for the upcoming season to 690, representing about a quarter of the state’s lion population.

Critics say that level of hunting pressure is not sustainable, but Division of Wildlife Resources biologists said they have recorded steady increases in cougar numbers in the past few years despite higher harvests. Cougars’ population growth tracked with gains in Utah’s mule deer herds, said Darren DeBloois, DWR’s game mammals coordinator.

DWR surveys indicate the state has 2,700 mountain lions, more than double the total in 2007.

“Our goal is to maintain a healthy cougar population within the current distribution of the species across Utah, while also considering human and livestock safety, as well as the health of other wildlife species that cougars prey on,” DeBloois said. “As part of this, we factor in a proportion of older age animals, breeding females and healthy cougars in the population.”

The board unanimously agreed with DeBloois’ increased harvest recommendations, although it tinkered with some of the numbers in specific hunting units where board members felt more or fewer cougar takes are in order. It approved an increase of 46 permits over last year — and 12 more than the division recommended — but the overall number of cougars killed by hunters will not likely reach 690.

“Cougars are tough to hunt,” DeBloois said. “Not every hunter who gets a permit will harvest one.”

At the same meeting, the board voted to reduce hunting pressure on the cougar’s smaller cousin because recent harvest data points to troubling signs in Utah’s bobcat population. It capped the total number of bobcat permits sold at 80% of last year’s, allowing a maximum of 6,460.

“Lower bobcat population numbers may be related to the decrease in the number of rabbits in the state,” DeBloois said.

But it was the cougar quotas that generated the most passion at Thursday's meeting.

The move to increase hunting opportunities for the big cats came over the objections of many “nonconsumptive” wildlife enthusiasts who insisted it disregards sound science to appease ranchers and big-game hunters who see cougar predation as a threat to their livelihoods.

Jean Tabin, a Salt Lake City ophthalmologist, fears Utah’s cougar population is approaching a “tipping point” in the face of hunting levels that more than double what wildlife experts say is appropriate for sustaining a healthy population.

“I am not convinced cougar numbers are up,” Tabin told the board. “It doesn’t seem like the people who care about cougars are being listened to.”

Others argued healthy predator populations lead to healthy prey populations, while trophy hunting, which targets big male toms, leads to greater conflicts with livestock because it opens lion territory to less-experienced males that are more likely to pursue sheep and cows.

Research shows cougars tend to take down sick deer, helping to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease and other communicable ailments afflicting Utah’s big game, according to Sundays Hunt, the Utah director of the Humane Society.

Leaders of influential hunting groups shot down those concerns.

“There is no doubt we have grown predators exponentially in the state of Utah. We have had more lions than we’ve ever had in Utah,” said Troy Justensen, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “The threat of annihilating them — that’s a myth.”

Miles Moretti of the Mule Deer Foundation alleged there was “a lot of misinformation” behind assertions that predation is good for prey species.

“There is no evidence that predators control spread of chronic wasting disease,” said Moretti, who is a member of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. Mountain lions “take healthy animals as well as sick animals.”

In a separate vote, the board grudgingly approved DeBloois recommendation to adopt a thee-year management cycle, which means permit numbers will remain stable for the next three years unless biological concerns require more immediate action.

In another change to the cougar hunt, DWR now requires hunters to provide the location of where they killed their cougars. The agency has long recorded the age and gender of every cat killed.

“This will provide additional data on where cougars are being harvested around the state," DeBloois said, “and will help us give more tailored recommendations for specific permit numbers on the various hunting units.”